Earlier this week, while walking the stage of the Thames Path from Windsor to Marlow, my bestie Jane and I trudged through Maidenhead, the constituency of our soon-to-be-former Prime Minister. We didn’t see Theresa May, but we did agree that Maidenhead pretty well sums up what is wrong with this country.
Because you can’t walk through Maidenhead without being utterly appalled by the filthy wealth that its residents ostentatiously flaunt through their hotel-sized houses, their perfectly manicured gardens the size of a small park, and their often garishly-coloured BMWs. It is a different planet to Wigan, or Wakefield.
But in last week’s European Parliament election, Wigan, Wakefield and Maidenhead all voted for Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party. Which (a) is not actually a political party (it’s an undemocratic private company run for the benefit of Nigel Farage’s ego); and (b) wants the UK to leave the EU on 31 October, with or without a deal. And when it says ‘deal’, it doesn’t mean the Withdrawal Agreement, which – like it or not – is and will remain the only ‘deal’ on offer (apart from the politics of the matter, the Article 50 extension agreement of 11 April explicitly rules out any renegotiation or “re-opening” of the Withdrawal Agreement). Indeed, to the Brexit Party, both ‘remain’ and the Withdrawal Agreement represent a betrayal of what The People voted for in June 2016.
A ‘no deal’ exit from the EU would be an economic and social catastrophe for the residents of Wigan and Wakefield. Jobs would be lost, prices would rise, and public spending cuts caused by falling tax revenues would further tighten the austerity screw that led many of them to vote for Brexit in the first place. More and more people, already desperately poor by the obscene standards of Maidenhead, would find themselves sitting at home (or on the street), hungry and with little to do other than admire their blue passport (assuming, that is, the Home Office can get stocks of the damn things delivered from France).
Meanwhile, in Maidenhead, some residents might have to cut back on the number of gardeners they employ to constantly perfect the vista from their two-storey, glass-walled sitting room. But many are simply too well-cushioned to even notice. Maidenhead survived two world wars, and it would probably survive a third without even noticing it was happening.
So, two very different parts of the country voted for the same stupid thing – one part because they don’t realise just how fucking stupid the stupid thing would be for them and their community, and the other because they are too filthy rich and insulated from the lives of others less fortunate than them to give a toss. And a private company has secured (i) 29 highly paid seats and expense accounts in the European Parliament, and (ii) a lot of free publicity for the next phase of its business plan: a general election or second referendum on Brexit.
However, last week the Tories scored their lowest vote since 1832 and, as Polly Toynbee notes in the Guardian, “that abysmal result will see the Tories move heaven and earth not to call a self-immolating general election, which would let the Farage hordes on to their Westminster turf”. So, if the UK is not simply to crash out of the EU on 31 October, without a deal, and a general election isn’t going to happen because it would be politically “catastrophic” for the Tories, as Tory leadership contender Jeremy Hunt agrees, how else can we resolve the Brexit gridlock that has paralysed both Government and Parliament since November last year?
Toynbee concludes that “going back to the people” with a second referendum is “the only way to cauterise the gaping national split and confront once and for all the many dark issues that lurk beneath the nativist Brexit idea”. And, on Twitter, the shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, agrees that “it’s no use trying to hide from these very disappointing results … the only way to break the Brexit impasse is to go back to the public with a choice between a credible leave option and remain”.
Which neatly highlights the key problem facing those still advocating (or, like shadow chancellor John McDonnell, belatedly coming round to the idea of) a second referendum: there is no “credible leave option” to put up against ‘remain’ on the ballot paper. Or, to put it another way, there are only two possible ‘leave’ options – and neither of them is credible as the ‘leave’ option on any second referendum ballot paper.
Those two leave options are: (a) accept the Withdrawal Agreement, as it stands (because, as noted above and as Jean-Claude Juncker reminded everyone yesterday, it cannot be renegotiated, or even ‘tweaked’); and (b) leave the EU with no deal. I’ll take each in turn, but before I do so, it’s perhaps worth reminding ourselves of something rather important.
Which is that, for there to be a second referendum, the House of Commons would first have to pass a Second Referendum Bill setting out the wording of the ballot question (which would also be tested for fairness and approved by the Electoral Commission before the Bill completes its passage through the Commons). Which means there would have to be a stable majority among MPs for the wording of that question, including the ‘leave’ option. A lot of pro-second referendum remainers (including some very clever ones) appear to think that all they have to do is say “remain must be on the ballot paper”, and Leavers will helpfully provide the ‘leave’ option, then helpfully pass the necessary Bill, then (if the Bill passes) helpfully not bring a legal challenge to the ballot question in the courts. As I will now try to explain, that is naive to the point of delusion.
Let’s start with (a), the Withdrawal Agreement. Just about the only committed supporter of the Withdrawal Agreement in the House of Commons is Theresa May. Labour (bar a few pro-Brexit rebels), the Lib Dems, the SNP, Plaid Cymru and Caroline Lucas of the Greens have all voted against it repeatedly. The hard-Brexiteers in the ERG hate it, as do most of the eleven (so far) contenders for the Tory leadership. Indeed, it was the evident fact that MPs would again vote down the Withdrawal Agreement (in the form of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill) that forced Theresa May into such a precipitate and humiliating resignation.
Until that resignation, the strategy of pro-second referendum MPs was to try to knock down all the options other than a second referendum (Norway Plus etc.) in the hope that, at the very last minute, Theresa May would in desperation offer a second referendum in return for those pro-remain MPs voting with the Government in favour of ‘her’ deal (that is, the Withdrawal Agreement). But Theresa May is now only minding the shop, and it’s hard if not impossible to imagine any of the favourites in the Tory leadership race needing or being willing to offer such a Faustian bargain, especially with the newly invigorated Nigel Farage snapping at their heels, ready to scream “Betrayal!” at the slightest provocation. Indeed, it’s very hard to imagine any of them agreeing to a second referendum of any kind – as of course they would need to do.
Moreover, even if, by some miracle, pro-remain MPs – including Labour MPs rejoicing with a new, pro-second referendum policy of the kind imagined by Keir Starmer – managed to secure a majority to force prime minister Boris Johnson or Michael Gove to introduce a Second Referendum Bill with the Withdrawal Agreement as the ‘leave’ option on the ballot paper, and the EU27 then agreed to another Article 50 extension (as would be necessary), Nigel Farage would no doubt manufacture both a public outcry and a legal challenge to the ballot question. The voters would be invited to see the ballot question as a stitch-up, and – as it would be a stitch-up – they would most likely agree.
In short, if after the events of the past few weeks you still think that ‘accept the Withdrawal Agreement’ is a credible ‘leave’ option for a second referendum, there is a three-legged horse running at Kempton Park next week that you should probably put your life savings on. Because hey, it might win. And you really haven’t learnt anything from the last three years of Brexit mayhem.
As for (b), leave the EU with no deal, the problem is that just about all the the MPs who might vote to have a second referendum think (and have said publicly) that ‘no deal’ would be an economic and social catastrophe. So they would be inviting the public to vote for something that they would most likely then refuse to implement. Which is the kind of stupid thing that got us into this situation in the first place. If there is one lesson that MPs should have learnt from the fiasco of 2016, it is that you should only invite the public to vote on options that you are prepared – and know how – to implement.
And pro-remain MPs would be taking a massive gamble by accepting ‘no deal’ as the ‘leave’ option. Because the very act of voting to have ‘no deal’ on the ballot paper would blow a massive hole through their main campaign argument that ‘no deal’ would be a catastrophe. As Abi Wilkinson notes, it would be “totally rational for people to disbelieve they’re being given the option to vote for something catastrophic, because what kind of lunatic government/parliament would put that to [a] referendum?”
In short, and as noted previously on this blog, the question cannot be Put Back to The People without MPs first agreeing on what the question is. And there is simply no credible ‘leave’ option that it is possible to see MPs agreeing to include in the question.
But none of this will stop remainers calling for a second referendum. Both sides of the Brexit debate have been intellectual honesty-free zones for some time now, and I don’t see that changing any time soon. Unfortunately, though, by the time the Tory leadership election concludes in late July, unless the new prime minister’s first act is to order MPs to sit through some or all of the summer recess, there will only be 15 parliamentary sitting days left until the EU Council meeting on 17-18 October.
That’s 15 working days in which to at least get started on ‘sorting’ Brexit.
So, here’s a nice photo from my Thames Path walk on Monday, of the Olympic rowing course at Dorney (which, just like you and me, dear reader, is owned by Eton school).