For as long as they are one and the same, the ‘People’s Vote’ and ‘Remain’ campaigns are doomed to fail
I have a huge amount of respect for Caroline Lucas, parliament’s only Green MP. However I found her recent attempt to reach out to ‘Leavers’ in the Mirror newspaper (“‘Dear Leavers — it’s time for us Remainers to listen more to you about Brexit”) somewhat cringeworthy. To me, there seemed to me to be a gaping hole in her message, namely: “if we do have a second referendum, you have every right to vote ‘leave’ again.”
Our departure date for leaving the European Union — 29th March 2019 — is hurtling towards us at breakneck speed. After the historic defeat of her Brexit deal in the House of Commons, Theresa May is nevertheless digging in on her red lines and playing desperate diplomatic gymnastics with the hard right of her own party and the DUP over the ‘Irish Backstop’.
The so-called ‘Brady amendment’, passed in Parliament last week, instructs the government to find unspecified ‘alternatives’ to the contentious Irish backstop part of the Withdrawal Agreement. The fact that — even by the government’s own admission — there are no alternatives means that the probability of a No Deal crash out of the EU on 29th March 2019 has risen significantly.
Surely when faced with a parliamentary stalemate and staring down the barrel of ‘No Deal’, MPs will soon see sense and realise that putting it back to the people is the only way out of the mess?
This is what the ‘People’s Vote’ campaign is counting on.
However, the idea that a second referendum is a ‘betrayal’ of democracy doesn’t seem to be losing momentum. ‘Tell them Again’ is already being proposed as a pro-Brexit second referendum campaign slogan. Pro-second referendum Tory MP, Sarah Woolaston pulled an amendment calling for a ‘People’s Vote’ because she knew the parliamentary arithmetic was solidly against her. Labour front benchers have been threatening to resign if the party swings behind a second vote.
Perhaps the cause of the problem has been staring us in the face ever since the ‘People’s Vote’ campaign for a second referendum first got off the ground. There is a wide-held belief that the ‘People’s Vote’ and ‘Remain’ campaigns are one and the same, and there’s a good reason for that belief. They are.
The alliance includes the cheerleaders-in-chief for Remain including Gina Miller’s ‘Best for Britain’, the youth-led ‘Our Future Our Choice’ and perhaps most starkly, ‘Open Britain’, the reincarnation of ’Stronger In’: the official ‘Remain’ campaign in the 2016 referendum.
Is it surprising that the one-sided agenda of proponents of a second referendum not only plays neatly into the ‘saboteur’ narrative, denting support for a second referendum, but also as a result, makes people more willing to believe the lies of the hard-line Brexiters and their dismissal of the catastrophic long-term effects of a ‘No Deal’?
Meanwhile those in favour of a ‘soft Brexit’ (the so-called ‘Norway Plus’ option) are no closer to realising their goals either. If you strip away the party politics; if in a parallel universe, the Labour party were willing to be honest about the real choices regarding Single Market and Customs Union membership, and if the ‘moderate’ wing of the Tory party were to be prepared to work with Jeremy Corbyn (and him with them), the Political Declaration could be rewritten to propose a Brexit deal that maintained a close relationship with our nearest neighbours. I think it’d even be able to garner a majority in parliament. But alas, if we parachute back down to the real world, party tribalism means there is no sign of this happening — at least for now.
The Political Declaration’s big brother, the legally binding Withdrawal Agreement, may be unpopular, but at least it’s an actual tangible “thing”: all joyful 585 pages of it. As much as people might hate the fact, it was negotiated by a government that had a legal mandate to do so — through securing a parliamentary majority after the 2017 snap general election. It also helps to guarantee things that moderate Leavers hold dear, such as respecting the Northern Irish peace process.
Yes, ‘People’s Vote’, it is time to put the question back to the people. However, in order for it to work, the ballot paper must provide a ‘real’ choice, and mustn’t be seen simply as an attempt by Remainers to reverse the results of the 2016 referendum. This is the fundamental mistake that I believe Caroline Lucas made in her Mirror article. Underneath all her ‘listening’ rhetoric it feels like her core message remains: ‘you got it wrong, try again’.
With less than eight weeks to go, whether Brexit sinks or swims, whether it causes minimal damage or destroys the country, is now down to one thing: to what extent moderate Leavers and moderate Remainers are willing to work together. Other than changing its awful name, the only way for the ‘People’s Vote’ campaign to garner the legitimacy it needs is if the moderate Leave lobby are persuaded to back it too.
I think it’s in their interests to do so. Why?
Because it is fast-becoming the only route for them to achieve their aims too.
May’s government will do anything to frustrate parliamentary tactics to try and force a rewriting of the Political Declaration to commit to a customs union and form of single market membership. There could be a majority for it in parliament, but if enacting such a revisit of the deal didn’t irreparably tear the Conservative Party in two, the instruction to extend Article 50 that would come hand-in-hand with it certainly would. A last-minute parliamentary groundswell to force May to do these things will probably be met with as much of the treason-accusing bile that the extreme Brexiteers currently throw at the Remain lobby.
The only way that moderate Remainers and Leavers can take control of the narrative is by doing so together. Advocates of a sensible Brexit that maintains an open economic relationship with our closest neighbour must stand shoulder-to-shoulder with those that want Brexit cancelled altogether. Both groups must then use a second referendum as a vehicle to make their case and give their real-world option democratic legitimacy, by letting the people decide.
Perhaps most importantly, by presenting the public with this ‘real choice’, the winning argument, whichever it may be, will have the Will of the People on their side.
You can follow me on Twitter @mrwillsadler