All aboard the People's Vote Express?

PUBLISHED: 11:31 25 July 2018 | UPDATED: 11:32 25 July 2018

Crowds gather in Pall Mall in central London, during the People's Vote march for a second EU referendum. Picture: John Stillwell/PA Wire

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Amid political stalemate a second referendum might be an idea whose time has come, writes BARNABY TOWNS

With only 12% of voters backing the government’s “Chequers compromise” in the latest poll, there are increasing calls for a People’s Vote, in which electors would be asked to choose either the government’s Brexit deal, assuming there is one, or the status quo. In addition to earning the support of most Liberal Democrats and Labour Remainers, a growing number of Conservatives now back this way out of the impasse.

Former prime minister John Major’s tentative embrace of the idea and the support of today’s parliamentarians –– former ministers Justine Greening, Anna Soubry and Phillip Lee, as well as European parliament member Charles Tannock –– have added momentum to this choice. And a new group, Conservatives for a People’s Vote, has formed, with polling by Survation indicating that nearly half of Tory voters support it — two-thirds in pro-Remain London.

The latest polling confirms former cabinet member Greening’s judgement that “having read the details, this deal is a fudge I can’t support,” explaining that it will not fly in her Rotherham home town (68% Leave) or Putney constituency in London (71% Remain).

YouGov polling for Greening’s three-way question — Remain, the government’s deal, or no deal — in which voters select a first and second choice, as in mayoral elections, has voters backing remaining in the European Union over leaving without a deal by 55% to 45%. Before second preferences are allocated, voters split 50% remain; 33% leave with no deal; and 17% plumping for the negotiated deal. That half the electorate remains stubbornly committed to EU membership while both main parties are insisting upon departure is telling.

Remain is the leading first preference among under-65-year-olds: 75% (18-24); 58% (25-49); and 46% (50-64), while leaving with no deal is the first choice of 49% of voters 65 and older. After second preferences are allocated, one in four Conservatives support remaining in the EU (compared to three-quarters who would back leaving with no deal) while three-quarters of Labour voters and nearly nine in 10 Lib Dems supporting remain over no deal.

Given the growing consensus that something has to be done to resolve the lack of parliamentary support for any one Brexit option — be that a People’s Vote on any Brexit deal, a new government of national unity, or a general election — what now stands in its way?

According to YouGov, the public itself is split: 40% in favour and 42% opposed.

The government is opposed as it tries to split the difference between a “Hard” Brexit — fully outside the European market and customs union — and a “soft” one — inside those but outside the EU — if one can count leaving 80% of the economy outside the market as “soft.”

Meanwhile, the official opposition remains opposed as it is keen to force an early general election, especially now the Labour Party has acquired a small opinion poll lead following publication of the government’s White Paper, which has produced defections from the Tories to Ukip.

But the parliamentary maths suggest that something must give. Even before Brussels could peruse the White Paper, the government was belatedly forced to support a raft of Brexiteer amendments to its legislation from its own backbenchers. One of these, with 12 Tories voting against (that is, for the government’s original position), one only passed thanks to the support of four Brexiteer Labour MPs. Indeed, if Liberal Democrats Vince Cable and Tim Farron had been present and Tory chairman Brandon Lewis had not broken the parliamentary pair promised to Liberal Democrat Jo Swinson, it would have been defeated.

With Tory nationalist MPs threatening defeat for the government should Chequers be compromised further — they call any moves toward reciprocal European market access “concessions” — parliamentary stalemate beckons. Indeed, after losing its foreign and Brexit secretaries and handfuls of lesser hands, and with a trio of intellectually lightweight Brexiteer cabinet members — Angela Leadsom, Ester McVey, and Penny Mourdaunt — reportedly on resignation suicide-watch, the government’s position is precarious.

This fragility is further exposed by threats of less high-profile ministerial resignations and government whips’ pleas to members to withdraw letters demanding a vote of no confidence in the prime minister — around 40 of the 48 required to trigger a vote are said to have been received.

All is not well with the rank-and-file either. Tory members oppose the Chequers compromise two-to-one, according to the authoritative ConservativeHome.com website.

While the EU is keenly aware that one misplaced word could blow this house of cards down, the government is still arguing with itself — chancellor Phillip Hammond is ranged against Brexiteers implacably opposed to free movement.

Yet despite the political paralysis that their Brexit policy has wrought — and the chaos and carnage that a no-deal exit may still bring — Brexiteers are keen to argue that a People’s Vote is undemocratic. This despite the fact that the only significant parties supporting a referendum in the 2015 general election — the Conservatives and UKIP — polled a combined 50% of the vote, the same as those parties opposed.

Brexiteers claim that a People’s Vote is an attempt to re-run 2016’s vote. But the counter-case, that it is a vote on Brexit in practice — a deal or no deal — as opposed to it in theory, is powerful. And the public is evenly divided on the merits of such a vote, as it was on 2016’s plebiscite, and, indeed, its outcome.

In Britain’s famously unwritten constitution — the product of nearly a millennium of unrivalled political stability — there is no place for referenda other than that for which parliament, which cannot bind its successors, legislates. Accordingly, the device has been used to resolve thorny political problems three-times nationally, twice in Northern Ireland, twice in Scotland, and once each in Wales and London.

The first Europe referendum came about as “a lifeboat into which the whole Labour movement could clamber,” as former prime minister Harold Wilson put it and the second was conceived by David Cameron and William Hague in an American pizza restaurant to silence Ukip and Tory Brexiteers. Given today’s stalemate, perhaps this latest idea’s time has come.

Barnaby Towns is a former Conservative Party government and campaign adviser, blogging at theurbanpioneer.wordpress.com and tweeting @barnaby_towns

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