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MPs will back the referendum
24 Jul, 2019

If they can see that the country backs Remain

The People’s Vote is right to campaign just for a referendum and to focus on MPs. However, we do need a separate pro-EU campaign now. The 2016 result is still the key democratic statement on Brexit. MPs will back a referendum to change course – but only if they are sure the public wishes that. At present we are still at half and half. So we need a Remain campaign to shift public opinion. London4Europe Committee member and former HM Treasury senior civil servant Michael Romberg applies some strategic analysis to the question. This blog looks at where we are and what the People’s Vote campaign should do; a companion blog sets out the need for a strategic Remain campaign to start now.


Dissension is dispiriting

There is some dissension as a result of the inevitable personal and organisational jockeying for status, control, jobs. People need to keep that within bounds.

They should take a lesson from Conservative Party members who say that they would be wiling to sacrifice their party to achieve Brexit. The ridicule to which they have been subjected for that view is unfair: a party exists to achieve an aim; the aim matters more.

Those in the Remain movement who prioritise their own position or that of their organisation over the European Project, over the UK’s membership of the EU – these people have lost the plot and need to rethink.



I do not care who is right and wrong, which organisation leads. My preference would be for a collective of all the main national pro-EU bodies to oversee the two national campaigns. But I’d back whatever arrangement would work.

What concerns me is the strategic difference. There is always room for disagreement on what the best strategy is. But let us apply some analysis.


Strategy for People’s Vote

First, People’s Vote is quite right on this. We need a separate campaign that is just for a referendum. It is a technical campaign on a boring issue. It is aimed at MPs. Voters have no more than a walk-on part as people who can influence MPs.


People’s Vote has been a great success

When I was arguing for a referendum from end June 2016 onwards few thought much of the idea. Now it is mainstream in the Remain movement.

It is a thinly-held view: six million signed the revoke petition.

But still, most Remainers recognise the referendum as the way ahead.


It is Remainers who support a referendum

Support for a referendum as the way ahead is given largely by Remainers: 76% of 2016 Remain voters, 14% of 2016 Leave voters (ComRes, fieldwork 15-16 July 2019); 71% of those planning to vote Remain, 21% of those planning to vote Leave (Survation, published 24 May 2019).

Moreover, Leavers’ support for a referendum evaporates if you say that Remain should be an option. They want the choice to be “Brexit or Brexit?”.


People’s Vote is not the obvious resolution of the crisis

Parliament has rejected all options for going forward. PV’s strategy is to be last man standing. But that is risky.

No-deal is the legal default. Parliament has no concrete mechanism for stopping No-Deal, short of a no-confidence vote or agreeing the Deal. Parliament’s influence may not be enough.

Deal is an orderly process and in line with 2016, still the most important democratic statement on Brexit. With the country still at half and half on the merits of Brexit, why should Parliament treat a referendum as the way out rather than a reheated version of the Deal?

Sure, good government argues for a referendum. I’m a retired civil servant so good government appeals to me as an argument. But for most people the referendum is solely a means to an end: a change of direction. But it is not clear that the country as a whole wishes to change direction. Being the larger half is not a clear statement.

Further, both main party leaders oppose a referendum. There is no real division between them on the Deal (their difference is about the non-binding political declaration).


Where People’s Vote has left to go

There is no point in increasing the proportion of existing Remainers who back a referendum. That would tell MPs nothing.

There are two routes left.

First, the People’s Vote could appeal to the other groups who think that Parliament will not give them what they want but the electorate might. Norway hardly features in the debate. I’d say that MPs were more likely to back Deal than No-Deal. So once No-Dealers have given up hope People’s Vote could appeal to them.

People’s Vote does not wish No-Deal to be on the ballot paper. Not only does that prevent People’s Vote obtaining the necessary support in Parliament. It also ensures that no referendum could have legitimacy since it would exclude Leavers’ preferred option. There are sound proposals for how to structure a multiple choice referendum.

Second, the Remain movement could expand the number of Remainers. That way MPs would see in the opinion polls a country not at half and half but overwhelmingly pro-Remain. They would no longer feel confident that 2016 was still a valid representation of the will of the people.



MPs will support a referendum as the way forward if they believe that the country clearly no longer wishes Brexit. To achieve the necessary increase in the Remain lead in the opinion polls needs a Remain campaign targeted at Leave voters.  A companion blog develops the argument for a strategic Remain campaign to start now.




The London4Europe blogs page is edited by Nick Hopkinson, Vice-Chair. Articles on this page reflect the views of the author and not necessarily of London4Europe.