ANDREW ADONIS: Keep the faith, but beware

PUBLISHED: 13:00 23 May 2019

Nigel Farage at the launch of the Brexit Party in central London. Victoria Jones/PA Wire

Nigel Farage at the launch of the Brexit Party in central London. Victoria Jones/PA Wire

ANDREW ADONIS urges Remainers to keep faith for a second referendum as the Tory party is on the brink of leader elections.

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How appropriate that Theresa May's last notable speech as prime minister was delivered in a whitewashed, soulless conference room at Price Waterhouse Cooper. Only the consultants are now left to give her a platform, in return for all those fees for Brexit planning.

The content was as valid as the venue. A '10-point plan' for a 'new Brexit deal', damned and disowned by MPs on all sides within minutes of delivery. The title 'prime minister in name only' was never so fitting.

The plan only had two real points, neither of them constituting a new Brexit deal. One was to say that MPs would get a vote on a second referendum if they pass her Brexit deal - but they can vote on a referendum at any time anyway.

And the second was that they would also get a vote on an option for a temporary customs union. But even if this passes, it is not binding on the next prime minister, who would have to seek to negotiate it with the EU. The legal Brexit deal voted on by parliament will be the same Withdrawal Agreement negotiated with the EU over the last two years and now rejected three times.

It is highly likely that May will be forced to cancel her fourth vote and proceed immediately to the election of a new Tory leader. If the Tories come fourth or fifth in this week's European elections, it is hard to see how she musters any last vestiges of authority to do otherwise.

The big question is whether, whatever May does in her dying days, there is now a parliamentary majority for a second referendum. Or whether we have to wait for a new prime minister to make the futile attempt at negotiating a harder Brexit - without an Irish backstop or any customs arrangement - only for that to collapse and face parliament, probably in October, with the choice between no-deal and a referendum.

It is possible the votes are now there for a referendum. Despite Jeremy Corbyn's prevarication, the collapse of the inter-party talks removes the last obstacle to Labour once again supporting a second referendum. I say 'once again' because, for all the controversy over the precise wording of Labour's manifesto for the European election, Labour led by Corbyn has already voted twice for a referendum on any Brexit deal and was never, realistically, going to do otherwise next time round, given the overwhelming support for a referendum among Labour MPs, members and trade unionists.

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The last vote, on April 1, saw a referendum defeated by just 12 votes, with 16 Tory MPs in support and most ministers abstaining. So it takes only a small number of extra Tories to support a referendum for it to reach a majority.

That number almost certainly lies in the large number of basically sensible ministers who now owe May nothing and will be acutely aware that delaying a new Brexit initiative until a hard Brexiter is elected as Tory leader is dicing with disaster.

This decisive group of ministers - including Philip Hammond, David Gauke, Greg Clark, Tobias Ellwood and Alan Duncan - aren't going to be looking for great preferment under prime minister Johnson, if they hang around at all.

They know that their great public service lies in how they stop, or fail to stop, a hard or no-deal Brexit. Pretty well all of this group now realise that a referendum is now the only credible way of doing so.

However, the European elections may introduce a new, dangerous factor. This isn't the relative support of Labour, the Greens, the Liberal Democrats and Change UK, which doesn't much affect any of these calculations since they are all in the same camp in this big question, for all the understandable but short-sighted attempts by the smaller parties to paint Labour as a Brexit party.

Rather, the wild card is how well Farage does. If he polls above 40% on a turnout of above 40%, fear will sweep Westminster that Farage might actually win a referendum on no-deal. After all, he is the best political campaigner in the country, as he has demonstrated yet again in the last month.

I doubt this will happen. I am a professional optimist, and my prediction about the fundamental unviability of Brexit, and the remorseless political logic and momentum towards a referendum have been proved consistently right over the past year.

But there are things more powerful than logic and viability in politics, even within a democracy with all the checks, balances and parliamentary deliberations of ours. The voice of the people, and the fear of a hostile majority at the next election, can sweep all else aside. Particularly in the absence of strong leadership to the contrary.

This is a moment of national peril, and it is not foreordained that we will survive without massive national self harm.

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