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No to a general election
11 Sep, 2019

Yes to a Deal – but only with a referendum

London4Europe Committee member Michael Romberg argues that a general election will not take us further forward. We need a referendum. The amendment of the “No No-Deal” legislation to refer to a debate on Theresa May’s Deal may provide an opening.


It is good that there is not going to be an immediate election. That could not resolve Brexit, though it might determine what happens next. In a general election voters choose a government. They do not settle single-policy questions. So I hope that when Parliament returns we do not drift thoughtlessly into a pointless election in November. It is not enough to be clear that No-Deal has been averted or to hope for party advantage from the timing. We do have to resolve Brexit first.

It is good that the Bill to prevent an unauthorised No-Deal Brexit was amended as proposed by Stephen Kinnock to imply a debate on Theresa May's Withdrawal Agreement. I do not claim to understand the murky circumstances in which it was passed without government opposition. Perhaps it was to provide Boris Johnson with a way to climb down from his set of impossible promises by passing the deal with a few rhetorical tweaks. Perhaps it was in the hope that another defeat for the Withdrawal Agreement would lead Brussels to shift their ground. Perhaps it was just a cock-up. Perhaps not even Dominic Cummings knows.

The amendment does not change anything in itself because it does not require the debate to be tabled. It just requires the Prime Minister to have as his reason for seeking an extension the holding of a debate on the Withdrawal Agreement. But it does provide an opportunity to re-set the discussion away from a general election. We should seize that chance.


The Deal

As a movement, we have made a mistake in criticising Theresa May's deal, going on about her "miserable deal". The deal is not a problem for us. It is Brexit that we do not like. Those Remainers who criticise Theresa May's deal need to set out what that good Brexit deal is that they would have liked. I can't think of one. For me - to follow the Brexiters into WWII slogans - the only good Brexit is a dead Brexit.

Let's work this through. Leave won in 2016. So the Government has a duty to progress Brexit. Our case is not that the referendum should be set aside but that the absence of a plan means that the mandate is provisional until there is a plan. Then that plan should be put to the electorate in a referendum.  The ballot paper cannot ask "Remain or Remain?"

If there is to be a Brexit, then it needs to be orderly and agreed with our friends and neighbours in the EU. The Withdrawal Agreement does that well enough: UK/EU citizens' rights, pay our bills, protect the Irish border, transition agreement. 

The Political Declaration is not binding. The future relationship will be determined by the Government that negotiates it with the EU. But the Declaration is friendly - that is what matters at this stage. It is also, like the Withdrawal Agreement, founded in the real world. No more dreamland. No more cake. That is its great value for us. 

Michel Barnier's famous slide showed the limited set of relationships that actually exist:  EEA + Customs Union, EEA, Customs Union, Canada FTA at the GB level (assuming no "alternative arrangements"), hostile. Theresa May's Political Declaration left open all the positive relationships. It probably pointed towards some sort of Customs Union if one does not believe that "alternative arrangements" could be found to address the Irish Border issue. It indicated a continuing wide set of co-operative measures outside trade. 

Theresa May's Brexit would deliver control over EU immigration and increase formal sovereignty while minimising the harm to the economy and maintaining as much practical co-operation with the EU as possible. Jeremy Corbyn's Brexit would be near enough the same.  The ERG's would be quite different; so would Nick Boles' Norway variants as his would keep freedom of movement. But the binary choice is in or out. That the plan or plans would still be vague in the referendum does not matter so much because at least they would have to be realistic.


Are we closer to a referendum?

The version of the Deal to which the Kinnock amendment refers is that more or less agreed in cross-party talks. It includes provision of time to debate whether to amend the bill to provide for a confirmatory referendum. That is what we want.

We do not want a general election before Brexit is resolved. Happy outcomes where a full-on Remain party wins seem less likely: I'm not betting on Prime Minister Caroline Lucas any time soon. The more likely outcomes are that either Boris Johnson wins well enough to take us to a No-Deal Brexit or Jeremy Corbyn wins well enough presumably on a platform to renegotiate his own Brexit and then he would surely recommend it to the public in a referendum.

So the task now is to call for a Parliamentary debate on the cross-party withdrawal agreement and political declaration. We should ask MPs to pass it - subject to a Final Say referendum. Passing it does not mean they agree that Brexit is a good idea. It would mean that they agreed that a real-world Brexit plan of sorts had been produced in fulfilment of the 2016 mandate and could be presented to the electorate.

After the referendum, that is the time for a new government to be chosen either to negotiate the actual post-Brexit relationship we are to have or - I hope - to set out a plan for healing the nation and our relationship with Europe within the EU. 




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