The pressing need for a second referendum4 February 2019 | 15:44 | The Observer
There were some green shoots of leadership in evidence last week, but they came from the backbenches. A cross-party amendment by Yvette Cooper and Nick Boles would have paved the way for MPs to authorise the government to seek an article 50 extension if no exit deal were in place by the end of February. Another, from Dominic Grieve, would have set up a series of indicative votes on the various Brexit options over the next few weeks. Neither amendment asked MPs to commit to a firm Brexit position; they were simply seeking a route out of the stasis that has enveloped the Commons. Yet, despite the fact that they voted for a symbolic amendment against a no deal, MPs voted down both of these amendments. Parliament is apparently against no deal, but unwilling to sanction anything that could prevent it.
Regardless, a delay now looks inevitable. Even if May were to get her deal through parliament at the earliest possible time, there is unlikely to be enough time to pass the legislation required before 29 March. MPs will have another chance to vote on a delay and the closer we get to the deadline, the more likely that becomes.
A delay is obviously preferable to crashing out, but it is not a resolution – it merely kicks the can down the road. Moreover, any delay is contingent on the agreement of the other EU member states. They would surely grant a temporary extension, but it would be finite and European elections make it tricky to extend beyond June. Time remains precious.
Yet there are few signs of the leadership desperately required to move the country on. The past two-and-a half years have demonstrated just how comprehensively our politics is broken. A referendum that narrowly divided the country on a vague question, with no concrete proposal on the table, should have prompted measured debate, consensus-building and reflection. Instead, it fractured both main parties and paralysed parliament.
May is a hostage to the right flank of her party, even though their views on immigration and economic deregulation represent a small fragment of the public. From the start, Brexit talks have been driven not by the national interest but by keeping the Tory right happy. It was a futile strategy: nothing but no deal will satisfy Conservative hardliners, who have shifted rightwards, to the extent that a Brexit that respects the terms of the Good Friday agreement has become anathema to them.
Labour is no less split: it has avoided taking an honest Brexit position at all costs. The more it plays the evasion game, the more it plays into May’s hands. And there are worrying signs that Corbyn and those around him are edging towards implicitly waving May’s Brexit deal through the Commons with the support of at least a handful of Labour MPs.
Tacitly allowing a small band of Labour MPs to strike a deal with May in exchange for cash for their constituencies and a vague “guarantee” on workers’ rights is naive and makes a mockery of the idea of solidarity, leaving to waste other areas desperate for investment after 10 years of austerity, which will only suffer more pain post-Brexit. Moreover, provisions for a soft Brexit will only be incorporated into the non-binding political declaration with the EU, which is more mood music than a guarantee. Labour MPs must ask themselves: without the power to trigger a general election, are they comfortable entrusting the Tory party and its ascendant right wing to deliver a soft Brexit and cushion the blow for former mining communities?
Uncertainty is already beginning to damage the economy: investment in the car industry has collapsed and several multinationals have moved their HQs out of the UK. Britain’s international reputation is being irreversibly damaged: how will anyone take UK negotiators at their word after seeing May publicly ditch all the commitments she has made to Brussels, vindicating the EU demand for an insurance backstop? Some have argued that after last week, momentum behind a referendum on May’s deal has evaporated. But a referendum was always most likely to win parliamentary support once other options are exhausted. It remains the only route out of this crisis. There is no way for MPs to guarantee a soft Brexit, even if a majority were to coalesce around it before March. Parliamentary arithmetic all but rules out an election unless May calls one herself. After years in which the world has become more hostile and British politics has been paralysed, it is only right that voters are given a say. Another referendum would be no more divisive than the deepening inequalities that Brexit would generate.
Unless Labour seizes the moment, MPs will face a choice between May’s deal and no deal, between handing a blank cheque to the Tories or catastrophically crashing out. Labour must swing its support behind a referendum – the only way out of this impasse – or it will rightly be held responsible for what comes next.
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