So, we’ve had one Meaningful Vote, and next Tuesday we will have another. Which begs the question: How many bloody Meaningful Votes do there have to be before anything meaningful happens?
Because Theresa May’s defeat in what future historians will presumably have to refer to as The First Meaningful Vote – the heaviest defeat of a government in parliamentary history – has changed nothing. Or, as May herself would say, nothing has changed. Last week, a lifeboat full of politicians from across the political spectrum pushed through a media scrum to meet with May in Downing Street, only to be told that they can have any kind of Brexit deal they like, so long as it’s the Prime Minister’s existing Brexit deal. Henry Ford, eat your heart out.
As Chris Grey notes on his must-read Brexit Blog, there is now a dangerous void of leadership and policy at the heart of British politics:
The House of Commons has decided that it has confidence in Theresa May’s government, but at the same time that it is opposed, on a massive scale, to the central and defining policy of that government – a truly bizarre situation. In rejecting May’s Brexit deal, the core underlying problem with Brexit itself was revealed: there is no consensus about what it means, even amongst those who support it.
Unfortunately, there is also no consensus amongst those who oppose it.
The campaign for a People’s Vote (PV) ploughs valiantly on, despite there being little if any vindication of the previously expressed belief of Anna Soubry, Chuka Umunna and others that defeat of May’s deal in the Meaningful Vote would bring out busloads of new PV supporters from the ranks of remain-leaning Tory MPs. And, as Phil Syrpis of Bristol University notes, the record-breaking scale of that defeat doesn’t help, because “for a People’s Vote, you need [to have] a credible Leave option to put up against Remain”.
Furthermore, the clock has continued to tick down. On 3 January, I noted on this blog that advocates of a PV were already three weeks short of the 22 weeks that, according to the UCL Constitution Unit, they need to legislate and prepare for such a referendum on 16 May (the latest date that would allow the UK to hold postponed Euro elections in late June, in time to elect MEPs by the cut-off date of 2 July, should the PV result in a decision to stay in the EU). They are now six weeks short. Or a mere five weeks short, if you prefer the minimum of 21 weeks that the Institute for Government says would be needed.
Holding a People’s Vote any later than 16 May would require an extension of the two-year Article 50 period beyond those Euro elections – until the Autumn at the very least, and probably until the end of the year. And in recent days, there have been growing signs that the EU27 would most likely not agree to such a lengthy extension (as they would need to do, unanimously), should Theresa May change her mind and request one.
On 15 January, Gonzalez Pons, the Spanish MEP who chairs the Brexit working group of the European People’s Party (EPP) – the largest political group in the European Parliament and the party of Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker – indicated that the EPP is open to an Article 50 extension “in terms of weeks”, but not beyond the Euro elections. The following day Guy Verhofstadt MEP, the European Parliament’s representative in the Brexit negotiations, said clearly that “while we understand the UK could need more time, for us it is unthinkable that Article 50 is prolonged beyond the European Elections”. And yesterday Michel Barnier noted that “it is important that the EU’s democratic processes [i.e. the Euro elections in May] are not disturbed by [any extension of Article 50]”.
Then there’s the question of whether a PV would be a good idea anyway. As Anand Menon of UK in a Changing Europe and King’s College London has recently noted, first on BBC Question Time and then, in more detail, in The Economist, a PV could be “speculative, vague and massively divisive”:
To those who say “we know much more now”, my response is yes, we do. We know that Theresa May’s government has made a hash of the process, that parliament has no majority for any conceivable outcome, that the EU won’t simply roll over and give us what we want (to be fair, some of us knew that last one in 2016).
What we don’t know, as we didn’t know in 2016, is what the future holds. We don’t know what kind of trade deal we will get, and therefore what kind of Brexit we will have. So another referendum would be a rerun of the old one, lacking the most important facts: [those] about the future.
It would also be a rerun of a campaign full of promises that can’t be kept. Proponents of a [People’s Vote] have stressed that “of course we have to address the grievances of those Leave voters who were protesting about the state of our politics and our economy.” How familiar. A campaign that promises things it will be in no position to deliver.
Not only that, but it will be a debate carried out by one side purely as an anti-establishment exercise. Little surprise that Leave campaigners have already come up with the slogan “Tell them again”. A three-month-long publicly funded campaign in which one side foments anti-establishment and anti-politics sentiment is surely not the wisest idea at this febrile moment in our political history.
The Guardian columnist Owen Jones made much the same point a couple of weeks ago:
We have learned from the Scottish independence vote and with Brexit what referendums do to our politics. They foster bitter divisions in ways that parliamentary elections tend not to do. That is why they can be such uniquely fertile political territory for the populist far right. A referendum campaign would in effect hand the most demagogic, reactionary elements of British life a megaphone for several months.
As expected, Theresa May’s Plan B has turned out to be Plan A with the ‘A’ crossed out and replaced with a ‘B’, while Jeremy Corbyn and Keir Starmer are still chasing the unicorn of negotiating a new deal with the EU27 based on a customs union and “close Single Market alignment”. With May having survived Corbyn’s motion of no confidence – by a margin of 52% to 48%, natch – Starmer wants Labour to comply with its own policy and consider all options, including a People’s Vote. But, as Guardian columnist Marina Hyde notes, Corbyn the High Triangulator is “reportedly going to keep calling no confidence motions until one produces the answer he likes. An irony that will doubtless be appreciated by those of his supporters angling in vain for a second referendum.”
Nick Boles, Stephen Kinnock, Lucy Powell and others are still flogging the dead horse once known as Norway Plus but now rebranded as Common Market 2.0. And a small but growing number of MPs led by Lisa Nandy and Stella Creasy are pushing the idea of a People’s Assembly, which may or may not lead in turn to a People’s Vote. But quite how Brexiteer MPs opposed to a People’s Vote will be persuaded to accept the verdict of a randomly selected group of 250 citizens – and how long that process of persuasion would take – is not explained. And I wouldn’t want to be the one who has to ask the EU27 to give us an Article 50 extension so that we can try out something we’ve never done before.
Some MPs are on the pitch, they think it’s all over … sorry, some MPs are trying to change the parliamentary rules to stop the Government doing any more stupid things. Which is all very well. But imagine that, instead of Dominic Grieve and Yvette Cooper, it was a bunch of the worst kind of Tory [Are you sure Grieve and Cooper are the good kind of Tory? Ed] trying to stop a radical, progressive but minority government from nationalising the railways or scrapping Universal Credit. Would you be clapping along then too? And anyway, as Ian Dunt notes this morning, it won’t make any difference.
Meanwhile, there are just 64 days left on the Brexit clock. And, as Sam Lowe and John Springford of the Centre for European Reform note, “while neither Parliament nor Government wants ‘no deal’, it remains the default outcome. Unless Britain revokes Article 50, the EU agrees to extend beyond 29th March or a satisfactory agreement between the UK and EU is found, the UK will leave the EU without a deal in place.” Similarly, Chris Grey notes that it is “pointless” for MPs to demand that May take ‘no deal’ off the table:
“No deal can only be avoided by agreeing to do something else. If nothing else is agreed, no deal happens by default.”
Which means, in the wise words of Guardian journalist John Harris, a nation bored of Brexit now risks sleepwalking into disaster.
But hey, Jack Savoretti has a new album out very soon. Life will go on. We survived the Black Death and two world wars. And I am digging an Anderson shelter in the garden.