With just over forty days until the UK is due to leave the EU, the likes of Lord Adonis, Dominic Grieve, David Lammy, Chuka Umunna and Anna Soubry, to name but a few, continue to pound the “People’s Vote” drum.
The Prime Minister’s Brexit negotiating strategy may have been branded as reckless, but second referendum supporters are surely being equally as reckless by continuing not to press their case so close to Brexit day. If they’re so confident of securing a People’s Vote, then they should put the amendment forward.
Although they may not admit it when pressed on Sky News or the BBC, those proposing a People’s Vote are not oblivious to the risks attached. The likes of Umunna, Soubry et al. know that the idea that the elite failed to implement the verdict of 2016 would play into the hands of populist leavers. If they thought ‘Take Back Control’ was fatal in 2016, then ‘Tell Them Again’ would be seismic.
And politicians can barely expect to look at the turnout statistics as a means of trying to reduce the legitimacy of the vote in 2016: the Brexit referendum produced a turnout not seen in a national election contest since 1992.
It may not be apparent to those in the claustrophobic Westminster bubble, but folk up and down the country are sick to their back teeth of hearing about Brexit. To many voters, it feels as if politicians have gone around in circles for the past two-and-a-half years. The electorate wants to change the conversation towards topical issues such as poverty, the NHS and education.
Since September 2014, there has been a Scottish independence referendum, devolved legislature elections, local council elections, two general elections and, of course, the EU referendum. What would be the result of forcing another referendum on an already weary electorate? There would be no guarantee that the turnout would be the same or greater than in 2016. Unlike our Australian counterparts, the UK does not use compulsory voting, so people are perfectly entitled to stay away from the polling booth if they choose to do so. What would happen if the turnout were less than fifty per cent and a Remain victory?
Currently, the parliamentary arithmetic opposes the idea of a “People’s Vote”. Jeremy Corbyn, especially, appears extremely sceptical about the idea. Labour members seem to have failed to appreciate he is a lifelong eurosceptic – voting against EEC membership in 1975, siding with Tory rebels in the Maastricht debates and voting against Lisbon. Corbyn was in Ireland during the second Lisbon Treaty referendum campaign in 2009 and infamously described the Brussels project as a military Frankenstein.
Labour Party Conference kept the idea of a public vote on the table, as a last resort; however, this is a mere smokescreen. Unbeknownst to pro-EU party members, the idea of a public vote is still on the table, but the motion has been ripped up. Furthermore, in order to win an election, Corbyn knows he would have to gain marginal Tory seats which also voted Leave.
Amendments to government motions can be put forward by backbench MPs but the reality is that they are not legally binding. Convention suggests that if an amendment secures a majority, then it puts pressure on the Government to act; however, we live in such unprecedented times that nothing can be taken for granted. This was seen with regard to the series of amendments put forward on 29th January. MPs voted 318-310, a majority of eight, to reject the UK leaving without a deal; however, this amendment was meaningless since it does not change the default position should the UK and EU fail to reach an agreement. Furthermore, MPs rejected an extension of Article 50 (the Cooper Amendment) beyond the end of March. So, to quote Mrs. May: nothing has changed.
It is only the Government which can propose legislation and the Prime Minister opposes a second referendum. She has explained that a second referendum would undermine ‘social cohesion’. And a shift to a second referendum does not appear to be materialising as Brexit Secretary, Steve Barclay has reconfirmed that the UK will be leaving on 29th March, with or without an agreement.
In essence, People’s Vote campaigners know they are championing a lost cause. Despite continuing to defend the idea, they are extremely aware of the risks and know that a second vote might not even provide a different result to the vote in 2016.
Most importantly, as long as the Government continues to sit on its hands and stubbornly resist the idea of a public vote, then the dream of overturning the result of 2016 is up in flames.
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