Pro-Brexit MPs are starting to support a second referendum – here’s why they’re right

Up until now, the debate surrounding a second referendum has been dominated by Remainers, but a pro-Brexit case for a People’s Vote is emerging as the only way to get Theresa May’s deal over the line

Sean O'Grady
Tuesday 09 April 2019 17:09
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Final Say: Phillip Hammond says 'confirmatory referendum' deserves to be tested in parliament

Time for a little candour. Enthusiastic as I am about the Final Say campaign – because I genuinely feel that the people have the right to be asked their consent to whatever is about to happen to them – I cheerfully admit that most of the people in favour of a second referendum, particularly those running the various campaigns, were, and are, passionate Remainers.

What is novel now is an emerging Leave case for a second vote. Now that Brexit seems to be “slipping through our fingers” as the prime minister puts it, it may be the Leavers’ last great hope – to win a popular vote again.

The Leavers who want a second referendum are still a relatively small group, at least in public – but they have spotted that the tide is turning badly against Brexit. The likes of Nigel Farage have hinted that it might take a second referendum to get the Brexit that they want. There is talk that the cabinet has discussed putting it to a free vote in the Commons. It is official Labour Party policy, and is being pursued in the cross-party talks led by David Lidington and Keir Starmer.

It is also going more mainstream within the parliamentary Conservative Party. The new mood is symbolised by Tory MP Huw Merriman. He is the parliamentary private secretary to the chancellor of the Exchequer, and he is a Remainer turned Leaver – a supporter of the prime minister’s deal. That’s the one, by the way, that has actually been agreed by the EU, though not her own party or the wider House of Commons. Philip Hammond has already spoken of a new referendum as a perfectly credible notion that can be put to parliament.

Merriman has been speaking at People’s Vote debates advocating a “confirmatory” referendum on May’s deal – which is Brexit – rather than having it “watered down” by adding in a customs union. He thinks that the prime minister’s best option, on all manner of grounds, is to take her case to the country in a confirmatory referendum. Others, Labour MPs with trade union backgrounds, know that is exactly how mandates work. A union’s members vote for a 5 per cent pay rise, and its officers come back with the best they can get – say 3 per cent. Do the members accept that or not? If they send them back to the management, but there’s no budging, will they then accept? Or mandate for a strike? It is much the same principle that applies to judging the final terms of Brexit.

May has spent years getting this deal agreed by the EU, so why not put it to the people?

Merriman voted for this in a free vote in the Commons, but has been discouraged from speaking about it publicly by the Tory whips, possibly with the threat of the sack. He is understandably aghast; but said it was crucial to put May’s deal back to the British people in a “confirmatory” second referendum – in order to get Brexit passed.

He said the choice should be between May’s deal and revoking Article 50 to cancel Brexit: “I am going to speak. I think it’s really important to explain the way I voted last week. It’s been made clear to me that that’s not government policy.”

Huw Merriman MP appears to mock fellow Tory MP Michael Fabricant for 'wearing a wig' during PMQS

I would, as a democrat, favour having the third option of a WTO Brexit on the ballot paper, and allow for a preferential vote between the three options – the May deal, WTO terms and Remain. Some People’s Vote campaigners don’t like the “hard Brexit” no-deal option being on there. Well, OK, but it erodes the support for a new vote.

Even if there were no Leavers starting to turn their minds to a referendum as way of “saving” Brexit, and it was all about Remain, there’s no embarrassment in that. If they want to stop Brexit, they’re entitled to campaign for that. If they think a People’s Vote is the best way to keep the UK in the EU, then fine. It isn’t patronising to be concerned about the welfare of your fellow citizens. You’d hope we all are.

What I’d suggest to Leavers is that another referendum might be the only option now left for them to campaign, fair and square, for their vision of Brexit. Otherwise they will most likely get some sort of “soft” Brexit – the worst of all worlds, in fact.

No-deal Leavers are, just, a majority in cabinet, but a small minority in the Commons. In the country it is different again. The no-deal option could win, and I would be content to accept that result – reached in a free national vote and with all the debates and knowledge we have now. We would all have our eyes open, though some would be filled with tears.

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