Brexit: Till we get the healing done

So, as Jim Pickard of the Financial Times noted on Twitter yesterday, Jeremy Corbyn “has worked out what would heal the divided nation, and it’s a [second] referendum on EU membership”.

Yep, in his speech to the Labour Party conference in Brighton, Corbyn said:

Within three months of coming to power a Labour government will secure a sensible deal based on the terms we have long advocated and discussed with the EU, trade unions and businesses: a new customs union, a close single market relationship, and guarantees of rights and protections. And, within six months of being elected, we will put that deal to a public vote alongside ‘remain’. And as a Labour prime minister I pledge to carry out whatever the people decide.

Wow Jezza! Come on, leave me breathless!

Except … that breathless schedule begs at least three questions: Is six months really long enough to legislate for, and hold, a ten-week referendum campaign? Even if it is, what does that imply in terms of the extension of the Article 50 period that would need to be requested from the EU27 at the outset? And – given the answers to those two questions – how might the package go down on the doorstep in the general election campaign that Jezza hopes will climax in him picking up the keys to 10 Downing Street? (Or does he?)

And that third question matters. Because, if Jezza can’t take possession of those keys to 10 Downing Street, there ain’t gonna be any second referendum, period. Yep, that’s the uncomfortable position into which the People’s Vote campaign – masterminded on Monday mornings by a manel of closet Corbynistas such as Alastair Campbell, Peter Mandelson and Tom Baldwin – has got itself: unless their suddenly beloved Jezza triumphs in the coming general election, they’re fucked.

So, assuming that general election happens in late November or early December, could a newly-elected Labour government really legislate for, and hold, a People’s Vote by late May or early June next year? Well, some time ago, the much-loved Institute for Government set out how, even with a fair bit of (not terribly democratic) corner-cutting, and assuming the legislation sails through each house of Parliament unopposed in a matter of days, it would take a minimum of 21 weeks to do that.

Which means a second referendum in late May or June is just about doable, were the legislation to be introduced within days of Labour ministers walking into their departments, and then sail through Parliamant unopposed. Shall I say that again? Were the legislation to sail through Parliament unopposed. Good luck with that.

However, unless that amazing, unicorn-free new ‘deal’ with the EU is successfully negotiated within days, introducing the referendum legislation so soon would require the wording of the referendum question to be decided, and the Electoral Commission to start testing that wording (a process that accounts for the first eight of the Institute for Government’s 21 weeks), before anyone can say with any certainty what that deal actually looks like – or, at least, how and why it is so much better than the ‘deal’ negotiated by Theresa May and Ollie Robbins but rejected three times by MPs. I suspect the Electoral Commission (and many others) would very strongly urge ministers to conclude their negotiation with the EU27 before introducing their referendum Bill.

Which is not necessarily a big problem. In reality, a new Labour government would not be negotiating ‘a new deal’. It would simply be negotiating some changes to the non-binding Political Declaration that comes free with the Withdrawal Agreement negotiated by Theresa May and Ollie Robbins. The hated Withdrawal Agreement itself would not change. In short, the most a new Labour Government could hope to conjure up is May’s Blindfold Brexit deal with some ‘customs union’ ribbons tied on.

So, it might well not take three months to complete that ‘negotiation’, as Jezza allows for in his breathless schedule. Tom Kibasi of the IPPR thinks it could all be done in an afternoon. But it seems more realistic to assume – for the purposes of agreeing that Article 50 extension – that it would take at least a few weeks to complete the process of negotiating a revision of the Political Declaration text, dotting the ‘i’s and crossing the ‘t’s, and getting sign off from the European Parliament. What, you forgot that stage?

That means we are looking at a second referendum in early June or July, at the very earliest. If the legislation sails through Parliament unopposed – got that yet? But the shiny new Labour government would first need to request, and get the EU27’s agreement to, an Article 50 extension some way beyond the date of polling day. Because, were the referendum to result in another vote to ‘leave’, the (secretly pleased) prime minister and his colleagues would need some time to make the necessary final preparations for exiting the EU.

With the holiday season probably not being the best time to have to make those final preparations, and allowing a bit of leeway in case, you know, the legislation does not sail through each house of Parliament unopposed in a matter of days, we are probably looking at the brand new Labour government having to request – or the less starry-eyed EU27 insisting on – a one-off extension to the end of 2020. The EU27 would not want Jezza coming back every few weeks to ask for yet another short extension because, let’s say, the referendum Bill isn’t sailing through Parliament unopposed, or Nigel Farage has been granted leave by the High Court to bring a judicial review of the referendum question.

Sure, Corbyn & Co can (and no doubt will) continue to claim they would have it all wrapped up in six months. But I rather suspect that, in the heat of a general election campaign, that flimsy and unrealistically optimistic claim will rapidly fall apart under the intensified scrutiny of journalists, and of voters heartily sick of Brexit.

Which brings us to the last of my three questions. Not even the most ardent remainer – I am one myself – actually wants a second referendum. The PVers just see it as ‘the best, and most democratic way’ of resolving the grisly Brexit impasse (which, let’s not forget, they helped to prolong by deliberately undermining and then voting down every possible compromise form of Brexit, from Norway Plus to May’s Withdrawal Agreement).

I happen not to agree with them on that – I think a second referendum would prove to be a ghastly repeat of the horrible mistake of 2016. But, more importantly, I suspect the combined general election offer of a further delay – sorry, Article 50 extension – to the end of 2020, and the unalloyed joy of a second, 10-week referendum campaign, will simply bomb on the doorstep. And, if it does, there will be no Labour-led government (or GNU), and no second referendum. It’s almost enough to make me vote Lib Dem. Almost.

As Van Morrison sang in “Till we get the healing done”, sometimes you’ve just got to sit down and cry.

About wonkypolicywonk

Wonkypolicywonk is a policy minion who has in the past been lucky enough to work for one of the very best MPs in the House of Commons, and before that at Maternity Action, Working Families, Citizens Advice, the National Audit Office, the Law Society, and Amnesty International UK. He's now back with the fab feminists at Maternity Action.
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