Brexit: So why didn't we go all guns blazing for a second referendum this week?

The People's Vote campaign deputy chair explains why the moment has not yet arrived for a public vote

Hugo Dixon
Friday 15 March 2019 17:12 GMT
Watch the moment MPs reject a second Brexit referendum

Some pro-Europeans are disappointed that the People’s Vote campaign didn’t push yesterday’s referendum amendment in the House of Commons. But, in this case, patience was a virtue.

By waiting for the right moment, we will gain greater legitimacy for a Final Say referendum. We will also maximise the chances of getting one and then winning it.

MPs were given a mandate by the people to find a good Brexit in 2016. It is only when they have concluded that there is no such thing that it will be right to ask the voters whether they still want to quit the EU.

Some of us may have reached that conclusion already. We know that Boris Johnson promised a fantasy Brexit three years ago. We know that unicorns don’t exist. Anything that looks like one turns out, on closer inspection, to be a horse with a cardboard horn stuck on its forehead.

But parliament isn’t there just yet. True, MPs have concluded that the prime minister’s deal is bad. They’ve done that twice now, most recently on Tuesday.

MPs have also concluded that crashing out of the EU without any deal at all is bonkers. They voted to rule that out on Wednesday.

But some think that, if the prime minister’s red lines were rubbed out, they could still conjure up that unicorn. Maybe the Norway Plus model - which combines staying in the EU’s single market and customs union - would do the trick. Or perhaps some variation on the theme such as Labour’s “jobs first” Brexit would work.

They’ll be sorely disappointed. From a distance Norway plus looks quite nice not least because, unlike the prime minister’s deal, it wouldn’t damage the economy. But if MPs inspect it closely, they will see its flaws.

It would turn us into political eunuchs following pretty much all the EU’s laws without a vote on them. We’d become even more of a vassal state than Theresa May wants.

We’d have to pay a big chunk of money to the EU. And, unlike at present, we wouldn’t have a vote on how it is spent. That would be taxation without representation. And the idea that we wouldn’t have to follow the EU’s rules on free movement would be shown to be guff.

But, at the moment, many MPs from both Labour and the Tories haven’t come to this conclusion. To some extent that’s not their fault. The prime minister has stopped parliament considering alternative options by her stubborn insistence on her red lines. It is only when she gives MPs the chance to hunt in the attic, peek behind the sofa and get on their knees to look under the car that they will realise that there’s no unicorn hiding anywhere.

So the next step in the process should be for the prime minister to let parliament complete its job of trying to deliver on the mandate of 2016. That’s why the Speaker must stop her asking MPs to vote on her deal yet again next week. Quite apart from the fact that it would break the House of Commons’ standing orders, endlessly debating the same topic is getting in the way of examining the alternatives.

Over the past year, more and more MPs have come out in favour of a new referendum.

Even Labour is starting to support one. Yesterday it only abstained. But five shadow ministers had to resign because they defied the whip.

When the hunt for the good Brexit is well and truly finished, hopefully Labour will whip enthusiastically in favour of a People’s Vote. That will be the time to give the people the final say on whether they still want Brexit.

Hugo Dixon is deputy chair of the Peoples Vote campaign and chair of InFacts

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