Why There Will Be a People's Vote
Updated: Feb 5, 2019
There is only one way for the deadlock on Brexit to be broken. Asking the UK public to decide on the deal negotiated by the government is the sole solution to the current political log-jam.
The reason that there must eventually be a People's Vote is because there will definitely not be consensus on Brexit in parliament. Parliament is important in this because the process of leaving the EU is essentially a legal one. In June of 2018 parliament won the right to give final approval to the a future Withdrawal Agreement. It is therefore MPs in parliament - not the government - who have to decide on how to leave the EU. If it weren't for the requirement to have a 'meaningful vote' then Prime Minister May's version of the Withdrawal Agreement would be official policy and the means by which we would be leaving on the 29th March 2019 - exit day.
As it stands, parliament looks certain to reject the Withdrawal Agreement that the government has negotiated. Without approval in a vote that agreement will not taken on the force of law, and therefore will not be the means by which the UK exits. If this situation were to continue until exit day Britain would 'crash out' in a disorderly 'no-deal' Brexit. Despite the Brexit-ultra's lies to the contrary, this would be an unmitigated disaster which all sensible politicians want to avoid. A situation in which the government can't guarantee that chronically ill children might die.
If the government's version of the Withdrawal Agreement is certainly not going to pass the Commons, is there another version that could? The answer, for several different reasons, is absolutely not.
There Is No Alternative
Parties and factions across parliament have been proposing their own Plan Bs due to the near-certainty of the government's defeat, and the obstinacy of Prime Minister Theresa May. Alternative 1 is from the Brexit-hugging, right-wing, ERG group of Tory party MPs who claim that 'leaving on WTO rules' is a viable option. This is dangerous, abject nonsense and there is no majority for it in parliament.
The next alternative option is from the Labour Party, who are attempting to walk a political tightrope in their response to May's Brexit failure. Corbyn especially wants a general election to be called, without there being a path to actually getting one.
Their criticism of the government is that the Withdrawal Agreement could have been better negotiated, and also that leaving the customs union and the single market is a mistake. While it's true that the government wasted time in their negotiations and blundered at times, Labour's criticisms don't hold water. Firstly, May has actually managed to negotiate hard with the EU and extract concessions from them that no-one expected she would achieve. There is no evidence that Keir Starmer, or anyone else, could have done better. Secondly, whilst staying closer to the EU as Labour suggest would probably be less damaging than the May plan, it is still worse than the arrangement that the UK currently has as a full member of the EU. There is little point exiting the European club if the UK is to remain part of its major institutions, but without any MEPs and therefore no vote. To borrow a phrase from the ERG-ers it would be BRINO (BRexit In Name Only) and therefore also essentially pointless.
Further suggestions are being floated by mostly Tory MPs that suggest different versions of partly-leaving, modelled on other country's bespoke relationships to the EU. 'Norway+', and the idiotically-named 'Canada +++' have been mooted in recent weeks. The MPs suggesting these alternatives as serious proposals ignore one key problem, which also applies to the tortuous Labour position: the EU will not renegotiate the Withrawal Agreement. Furthermore, even if they were to, the suggested alternatives all contain fatal flaws which would make them equally unappealing to parliament as a whole.
So, it is clear that the only version of Brexit that can be put to parliament is the government's current plan, and that will fail when put to the vote. This is the reason why the government pushed back the date of the vote last week. But it cannot delay forever. What will happen when the government's Withdrawal Agreement is defeated?
At that point we will enter a short period of serious political crisis. The will be even greater than the paralysis and turmoil of the previous two years. May has seen off a confidence vote from within her party and looks set to stay put for now, so there will be no way out through a change of leadership. A vote of no confidence from the whole of parliament might also arrive, but at present it is probable that the government would scrape through that test also. With the prospect of no-deal chaos bearing down on the country parliament is likely (due to the Grieve amendment) to be able to take the danger of 'cliff-edge Brexit' off the table. This would set up a very uncomfortable legal contradiction: at one and the same time the UK would be committed to leaving at the end of March, but also to not leaving without a deal. Parliament would at that stage be effectively vetoing all three possibilities elucidated by May at the Downing Street podium on 14 November 2018: her deal, "no deal or no Brexit at all". It is against this totally deadlocked background that the idea of a People's Vote will then rise to greater prominence.
Most of the politicians and members of the public who currently support the idea of a People's Vote are remainers. This is because it is the one route towards remaining in the EU, ignoring the politically unwise possibility of just cancelling Article 50, as John Major suggested this week. The tipping point for a People's Vote will come however, when those who want to Leave the EU also come to support the idea of a fresh referendum. This will be come to pass because before too long it will be the only route to leaving the EU as well as the only route to remaining.
Many Brexiteers view May's version of the Withdrawal Agreement with such disdain that they see it as not being Brexit at all. Therefore a second referendum - this time on the terms of leaving - starts to look like a better bet than what is on offer from the Prime Minister. Whilst agreeing to a fresh vote there will certainly be howls of betrayal from the supporters of Brexit that the 2016 referendum could be 'overturned'. These protestations will not be enough of a barrier to agreeing to a vote if that is the only way to keep Brexit on the table, however. There are already signs that there is a shifting of opinion amongst the cabinet towards a People's Vote, though not yet amongst Brexiteers. A further crucial factor that may persuade the Tory right is that polling on the public's attitude to exiting the EU is still very close. Both sides would believe that they could win a vote and therefore both would fancy their chances of achieving their outcome.
There is still a lot of political road to negotiate before we arrive at a point where a People's Vote is a certainty. Most problematic would be the setting of the question posed to the public. Labour, and all advocates at present, are clear that Remain would have to be on the ballot paper. Given that, it is unclear how it would be possible to argue against having 'no-deal' on the ballot as well. It is far from clear by what process the question could be arrived at by parliament, who would have the final say on this matter. None the less, driven by the impossibility of any other route out of the mire there would eventually be a form of words agreed.
A Decision Needs to Be Made
The options for Brexiteers are rapidly being closed off. The deal negotiated by the UK's government will not pass through parliament. What was initially called a 'ratification referendum' will soon become the only possibility of a return to some sort of political normalcy; a People's Vote is the only practical way out of the current impasse. Alongside this, there is one final reason why a vote will take place.
The current political problem is not, at its root, a technocratic one.
No statesman, or woman, no matter how gifted they were at negotiating could have navigated this crisis. It is a lack of popular legitimacy for any course of action that blocks all courses of action. May's snap election in 2017 delivered a hung parliament, and the government could not credibly claim a popular mandate for May's Brexit vision. Nor can the government presently wield the powers of parliament to force through the plan that has been thrashed out with the EU. The original 2016 referendum was advisory, and it did not confer legitimacy onto any particular plan because the question of how to leave the EU was not on the ballot paper. It could hardly have been, as there was no off-the-shelf plan and negotiations had not been begun. The very fact that there are so many competing interpretations of why people voted to leave, stems from the essential uncertainty of the message sent by the electorate. The only way to confer legitimacy on the government's, and parliament's, future course of action is to put the question to the people. This will provide the mandate that is lacking from any and all options at present.
Of course, this means that when a fresh referendum takes place the result will be sacrosanct. A People's Vote represents a risk for all sides of the debate, because it would be a real rather than a false choice. Yet all democracy is a risky business, and the political costs of not facing down this challenge will be far greater than not doing so.
It is the people of the UK who will be affected by Brexit, now and for a long time into the future. It also the people who are sovereign and there must, therefore, ultimately, be a fresh vote by the people.