Most MPs currently don’t want a referendum or to back Remain. How to change that?
London4Europe Committee member and former Home Office senior civil servant Michael Romberg looks at the incentives for MPs to back a referendum on the Brexit deal following recent votes. Most MPs do not want a referendum or to be seen to back Remain. So how can we show them that a referendum could achieve something they do care about such as avoiding a damaging partly split?
Parliament has passed an amendment that aims to rule out No-deal. It is a political statement rather than a legal commitment. In law, No-deal is where we are heading. How effective the amendment will therefore be depends on whether MPs are able to coalesce around some other option and whether the electorate also supports ruling out No-deal.
Where will MPs go
I assume the Prime Minister will not be able to obtain substantive change to the backstop in her attempted re-negotiation of the existing deal. The ‘Malthouse compromise’, which considered many options already rejected by the EU, cannot form the basis a serious plan. The EU will hardly abandon Member State Ireland for ex-Member UK. The EU presumably also assumes the UK will blink first.
For the Economic Research Group (ERG) the question then would be whether to believe Parliament will actually prevent No-deal. If so, then the cosmetic improvements that the Prime Minister will obtain might save face and lead them to support the deal (better than nothing). However this would present the DUP with a real dilemma between their red lines (Brexit) and their blood-red lines (the integrity of the Union). Alternatively, the ERG might wish to appeal to the public in a referendum campaign. But if they think Parliament will continue to fail to take the necessary action to stop No-deal, they might again be obstructive in the hope parliamentary momentum takes the UK to no-deal.
In the case of Jeremy Corbyn, his friend is chaos. But only if he is not blamed for it. He could ultimately pose as statesman backing Theresa May's deal in order to avoid No-deal, but in so doing he will have failed to secure the General Election he cherishes, and he will have saved the Conservatives from a potential split, at least temporarily.
Corbyn’s deal is not much different from Theresa May's. The EU could signal more clearly that a Customs Union would be available as part of the negotiation on the Future Relationship after Brexit. They could even promise the UK "a say" in future trade negotiations - that empty phrase could mean quite different things in different ears (only if the UK remains an EU member would it have a full say in shaping EU trade policy). Corbyn could claim that after a General Election he could make a Customs Union work. Even more uncertain though is what Labour’s envisaged close relationship with the Single Market might actually entail.
Since most MPs still feel obliged to honour the result of the 2016 referendum (in spite of some polling evidence that two thirds of constituencies now support remain), a further referendum currently remains a minority choice. This could still change if all other avenues are exhausted. Conservative Remainer MPs will not come out for it in a rebellion that would be pointless until Jeremy Corbyn supports the option. If they are not brave enough to announce their own intentions, then they should at least whisper to the Labour whips that they would back them.
Corbyn does not need to back a referendum because he knows the overwhelming majority of Labour Party members prioritise party loyalty to him over Remain. But backing a Brexiter means abandoning Remain. People do need to recognise the effect of their choice in prioritising the possibility of a five-year government over the certainty of a lifetime outside the EU. There would still be elections if we Remained.
Organisations for Remain-backing members and supporters of the two main parties that are trying to change their party's policy towards a referendum are listed in our blog Remainers in the parties are fighting back; you can join those party members already engaged.
How to bring MPs to the referendum
Deadlock in Parliament means that no-one can get what they want. So all must appeal over the heads of MPs to the electorate. But we will only get a referendum if most MPs think that. If Corbyn continues to block Theresa May's deal then that may be her best option. Corbyn has to believe that he needs to learn the lesson of 1975 and use a referendum to overcome the divisions in his own party and seize the opportunity to expose further those in the Conservative Party.
There is also an opportunity with the ERG. The People's Vote campaign seems to have been run deliberately without arguing for Remain, and has sought to attract not only Remainers but those who want the question to be "Brexit or Brexit?". Opinion polls show you only get high support for a referendum if you do not make clear that Remain should be an option. So perhaps the time has come to follow through the logic of the strategy, call explicitly for a three choice referendum and so seek to convert the ERG MPs?
Only a minority of MPs are currently willing to prioritise Remain. So it is only by appealing to MPs with different objectives (manage a split in their party/ obtain a harder Brexit) that we shall get a referendum.
Blogs are edited by Nick Hopkinson, London4Europe Vice Chair. This article reflects the views of the author, not necessarily of London4Europe.