Brexit: the People’s Dilemma

So, MPs are busy piddling away another four days of the precious little time they have left to at least get started on ‘sorting’ Brexit before the EU27 take a rain-check on the Hallowe’en Article 50 extension at their Council meeting on 20-21 June. And one week tomorrow The People will troop to the polls in an election that was not supposed to happen, which the Tories are still doing their best to pretend isn’t happening, and which seems set to do absolutely nothing to help with that ‘sorting’ of Brexit – other than put the wind up Tory MPs. Perhaps that’s the whole point.




To the surprise of almost no one, the Labour Party has produced a constructively ambiguous manifesto from which it is very hard to tell whether the party wants to leave or remain in the EU, while the Brexit Party – led by the BBC’s star talent, Nigel Farage – is consistently polling more than the Tories and Labour combined without bothering to write a manifesto at all.

Indeed, from reading the party manifestos that have been published, you would struggle to learn very much at all about how their authors plan to use the time that, one month ago, Donald Tusk warned them not to waste in seeking to resolve the Brexit gridlock that has paralysed both Government and Parliament since November last year.

Labour’s manifesto, for example, grandly promises “we will end austerity, invest in communities, protect our public services, and ensure those with the broadest shoulders pay their fair share”. And there’s much more like that:

Labour would strengthen trade union rights, increase the minimum wage to a real living wage, fund proper enforcement, and give trade unions access to workplaces. We will ban the overseas-only advertising of jobs in the UK, and ensure every worker has the same basic rights from day one in the job.

They do realise this is an election to the European Parliament, don’t they?

But as to how Labour would resolve the issue that has kept the House of Commons gridlocked for six months and required not one but two extensions of the two-year Article 50 period that was supposed to end on 29 March, the manifesto says only that

Labour will continue to oppose the Government’s bad deal or a disastrous no deal. And if we can’t get agreement along the lines of our unicorn-packed alternative plan, or a general election, Labour backs the option of a public vote.

OK, it doesn’t say “unicorn-packed alternative plan”. I made that bit up. The alternative plan is “to seek a close and cooperative relationship with the European Union, including a new comprehensive customs union with a UK say, close single market alignment, guaranteed rights and standards, and the protection of the Good Friday peace agreement in Northern Ireland”. No unicorns there!

Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit secretary, has added that any ‘deal’ or ‘agreement’ that emerges from the so far unproductive talks between Labour and the Government – now entering their seventh week – would, in his view, need to be subject to “a confirmatory [public] vote”. But neither he nor his party’s manifesto says when that vote might need to take place, or what (other) choices might be on the ballot paper. As Matthew d’Ancona noted in the Guardian on Monday:

Jeremy Corbyn launched Labour’s European election campaign last week with a speech that presented Brexit less as a historic challenge than a hugely irritating distraction from his grand plan for Britain.

Similarly, the Liberal Democrats’ ‘Bollocks to Brexit’ manifesto simply states: “We can stop Brexit through a People’s Vote”. Not a single word about when this People’s Vote would be held – and whether that would require yet another Article 50 extension, as it almost certainly would – or what choices The People would find on the ballot paper.

Ditto the Greens, who say in their manifesto that a vote for the Green Party on 23 May is a vote to “remain in the EU, through putting the question of Brexit back to the people and mobilising a positive, pro-European movement to win the People’s Vote for Remain”. Which is certainly more positive and pro-European than the party’s 2015 general election pledge to “prioritise local self-reliance rather than the EU’s unsustainable economics of free trade and growth”. However, there is no clue given as to what question, exactly, would be put back to The People, or when that might happen.

In a literally colourless manifesto brimming with pro-EU sentiment, Change UK say that “the only way” to “put the chaos and division of the past few years behind us” and “reconcile the country” is to “give the final say on whether to proceed with Brexit, as it is today, to the people”. Which does at least suggest that their ‘final say’ would be a choice between remaining in the EU, or accepting the Prime Minister’s blindfold Brexit deal.

The Women’s Equality Party’s manifesto is more colourful, in every sense, and is similarly packed with enthusiasm for the EU project (as well as good policies). But on resolving the Brexit crisis by October, it too says only that “We back a People’s Vote”. And, at the time of writing, both the SNP and Plaid Cymru have yet to publish a manifesto.

In short, the above manifestos tell The People virtually nothing about how Labour, the Tories, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, Change UK or the Women’s Equality Party (WEP) would, given the chance, use the remaining time – just ten parliamentary sitting days, between the election next Thursday and the crucial EU Council meeting on 20-21 June – to at least make a start on ‘sorting’ Brexit. Or how they would complete that task before the next EU Council meeting on 17-18 October – the last before the expiry of the Article 50 extension on 31 October.

Sure, the Liberal Democrats, Greens, Change UK and WEP – and possibly Labour too – say they would hold a People’s Vote/second referendum/confirmatory public vote. But all gloss over the fact that holding such a referendum would now require a further Article 50 extension beyond 31 October – an extension to which the EU27 may or may not agree. And none are prepared to spell out exactly what choices (other than ‘Remain in the EU’) they would (or would not) put on the ballot paper. Which is far from being an academic question. It really, really matters.

Apart from anything else, there can only be such a referendum if MPs speedily pass the necessary primary legislation – and that in turn requires there to be a stable Commons majority on what choices to put on the ballot paper. In other words, the question can only be Put Back to The People once MPs (and the Electoral Commission) have managed to agree – in precise terms – what the question should be. And, for reasons set out in detail by Chris Cook on Tortoise some months ago, the ‘question of the question’ is “a problem that may be insuperable”. For, as noted previously on this blog, in the wise words of Andrew Duff of the European Policy Centre:

The Electoral Commission would insist that the conduct of the referendum was both free and fair. The House of Commons would need to agree on a [ballot] question that did not effectively disenfranchise that large part of the electorate opposing not only the deal on offer, but also the revocation of Brexit. Parliament could overrule the Electoral Commission, but not without litigation and public outcry.

Yet the pro-Remain parties (and Labour) evidently all agree that it would be irresponsible to put ‘leave with no deal’ on the ballot paper. Which really leaves only ‘Remain in the EU’ and the Prime Minister’s existing, blindfold Brexit deal as the ballot paper options. For, even if the talks between Labour and the Tories belatedly generate some kind of agreement, it won’t significantly alter the existing deal with the EU27: at the very most, it will amount to a few minor tweaks to the non-binding (so potentially meaningless) Political Declaration, and won’t change a single word of the Withdrawal Agreement. In any case, the Political Declaration already covers the full spectrum of possible future relationships, so there’s no need to tweak it.

In short, whatever agreement Labour and the Tories might reach, it would still be the same bungled, blindfold deal that Theresa May agreed with the EU27 back in November. But that deal has already been rejected three times by MPs, large numbers of Tory MPs are likely to reject (and vote against) any tweaking of it agreed with Labour, and Justine Greening, the pro-Remain and pro-second referendum former education secretary, rightly notes that “the Cabinet’s halfway-house fudged Brexit pleases no one. Failing to realise that and ducking tough decisions is just fuelling populism.”

Which is not something you want to do, really, if you are intent on holding a referendum campaign during which right wing populists like Nigel Farage would be handed shed loads of public money to further promote right wing populism. Indeed, as Phil Syrpis of Bristol University tweeted earlier this week, in a thread that is well-worth repeating in full:

A People’s Vote would make sense in a world in which we (the UK) had a settled path for Brexit, and MPs wanted to assess whether there was sufficient popular support for that Brexit. Brexiteers would argue that such a vote is not necessary, and that the Leave vote of 2016 provides the country with a sufficient mandate. Were they to lose that argument, they would then, in the People’s Vote [campaign], make a passionate case for Brexit.

It beggars belief that people do not seem to realise that we do not inhabit the world just described. Nigel Farage is making political capital, because he is characterising not just Remain, but also the Withdrawal Agreement, as a betrayal. He is not cheering on the Government in their tortuous effort to try to implement Brexit. He is not willing the cross-party talks to reach some sort of consensus. He is inviting people to demonstrate their scorn for all politicians.

Farage’s message resonates [with voters] because he is, in part, right. Politicians have, in the years since 2016, failed to deliver Brexit. But the failure of politicians is not quite that they have failed to deliver Brexit, but rather that they have failed even to define Brexit, to explain the different implications of different possible Brexits.

In this, Farage is as culpable as anyone: the Brexit Party has no manifesto! Farage offers no solutions. But it is easy for him to treat [the pro-Remain parties’] calls for a People’s Vote – between Remain and [accepting] the Withdrawal Agreement – with scorn. He can claim with some justification that [The People] did not vote for either of [those two] options.

Phil concludes – and, indeed, has been arguing with force for some time – that the pro-Remain parties would do better to call for revoke (i.e. for revocation of the Article 50 notification), thereby forcing Farage, Rees-Mogg and others to set out their version of Brexit – and then get challenged on how they plan to deliver it.

In short, by focusing on a People’s Vote/second referendum/confirmatory public vote – something they themselves have manifestly failed to deliver, and still cannot fully explain how and when might ever happen – the pro-Remain parties have been, and are, making it easy for the Brexiteers. Back in August last year, I suggested on this blog that:

If Brexit is blind, and MPs cannot see the future relationship, then the voters will be no better sighted, and any People’s Vote would simply be reduced to a no doubt divisive re-run of the in/out farce of June 2016. For Leavers it would be the easiest political campaign in history, to make up for not getting the easiest trade deal in history.

The results of next week’s election will provide an early indication of whether I was right to be so pessimistic [I think you mean ‘so defeatist and unhelpful’. Ed].

Anyway, here’s a nice photo of Whitesands, Pembrokeshire that I took last week when not thinking about Brexit at all.

About wonkypolicywonk

Wonkypolicywonk is a policy minion, assigned wonky at birth, who has been lucky enough to work for two of the very best MPs in the House of Commons, and for Maternity Action, Working Families, Citizens Advice, the National Audit Office, the Law Society, and Amnesty International UK.
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1 Response to Brexit: the People’s Dilemma

  1. Pingback: Brexit: Remainers have a credibility problem | Labour Pains

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