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Might the people get another vote?

Julia Langdon-The Tablet - Sat, Nov 24th 2018

The Brexit deal

Just once in a while, in the middle of a complex and difficult political muddle, there can come a moment when the voice of common sense can be heard above the clamour, ringing with the blessed clarity of a bell from a church steeple. “What I want,” said the plaintive voice of a woman on the radio this week, “is for all this nonsense to stop.”

I didn’t catch her name. (It wasn’t Theresa May, although it might have been.) This was the successor to Brenda from Bristol, she who said: “You’re joking! Not another one!” on being told last year that the country was going to the polls for the third year in succession.

And, like Brenda, this anonymous woman, this “vox pop” as we call them in my business, spoke for the nation. Everyone (particularly, of course, Mrs May) wants all this nonsense to stop, and although it is not going to do so for quite a while, a glimmer of light has nevertheless appeared for the first time at the end of the long dark tunnel into which British politics disappeared on 23 June 2016.

Like everyone else who dares to opine on politics, I have avoided making predictions about what might possibly happen since we have been in this tunnel, and for the obvious reasons. The situation has been so febrile, fluid and full of uncertainty that only the foolish would bother to do so. Anything could happen – and often has. Added to that, the exigencies of newspaper and magazine production offer the less than gratifying chance of being proved wrong before even appearing in print. This is at least the fourth time I have written in this space in the certain knowledge that it is entirely possible that the Prime Minister will have been bundled out of office by the end of the week.

And so, once again, she might. But here – for once – is a prediction: I don’t believe that she will be. Not this week, anyway. Jacob Rees-Mogg and his confrères in the European Research Group have over-played their hand. They do not have (at least, at the time of writing) the numbers declared to force a vote of confidence in Mrs May as leader of the Conservative Party, and while the required figure of 48 MPs may exist, and could be achieved, it now seems improbable that such a vote would necessarily carry in the House of Commons.

The risk of it being staged and lost, thus ensuring that the Prime Minister could not be similarly challenged for at least another year, is too great to contemplate in the circumstances. Her party may want to be shot of her, but is now really the time, when there is no obvious candidate to succeed her?

What has now, remarkably, changed in recent days is that a certain degree of consensus seems to be quietly emerging. It is, admittedly, the lowest common denominator, a negative consensus, yet it carries with it the slight possibility, the merest squeak, of some sort of political progress. After so many tortuous months during which nobody agreed about anything, when there appeared to be no possible way forward and when the word “impasse” was irritatingly mispronounced on a daily basis, there is now widespread shared “agreement”, if we can term it thus, that the proposed deal with the European Union on the terms of our departure from membership is unsatisfactory.

Nobody likes it. Remainers are derisive about it and the Brexiteers abhor it. Serious-minded people who have read and understand it tell me that it is profoundly wanting in a number of different ways. The political statement that forms part of it is described as “vacuous”. The Financial Times calls it “rotten”. One cartoonist has Mrs May looking in a mirror and Anthony Eden looking back at her. Others evoke the ghost of Neville Chamberlain. The memories of Suez, Dunkirk, Munich and even Peterloo – well, there is a film on – are all summoned to frighten the children.

As for the politicians, seven Conservatives resigned on the day. Only two of them were members of the cabinet and several of the others were people or posts of whom, or about which, little was known. But it brought the total of ministers who have resigned from Mrs May’s government in the 17 months since last year’s election to a staggering total (at the time of writing) of 24. The Labour Party swiftly made plain that it will oppose it because, by such means, it hopes to secure a general election. The Democratic Unionists have rejected it utterly and put the continuation of the confidence and supply agreement with the Government in doubt.

The Scottish Nationalists will also vote against it. Nicola Sturgeon hints that “when the dust settles” at Westminster, we may hear more about her plans for Indyref2, as the Scots call their promised second referendum, the chances of which have certainly been enhanced by the constitutional strains imposed by the terms of this deal. The Liberal Democrats still want a second referendum.

And this is the source of the chink of light ahead. A second referendum has never been a viable option. Not until now. It has been ruled out as unacceptable because how can holding a second plebiscite on the same issue be defended, merely because the first has produced an answer that is unpalatable to the losing minority? Under what circumstances is it tolerable to stage another referendum in order to secure a different answer? And even if such a vote was to be held, and even if it did produce a different outcome, what kind of social divisiveness would then result in consequence?

Years ago I tore an editorial out of a local newspaper that I still treasure. “Democracy comes in many forms, some more satisfactory than others”, it read. What the author wrote was nonsense; what he meant was that democracy provides the right to disagree – and he disagreed with the outcome.

But the case for a second referendum on Britain’s relationship with Europe is now becoming more likely, not as a challenge to the result of the vote in 2016 but because it looks like the only means by which British politics can coalesce. The Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has vacillated on the subject but, more significantly, John McDonnell has indicated a sort of acceptance of it, albeit on conditional terms. The Prime Minister has ruled it out but – so what? That could change.

The likelihood of the deal that she has put forward being defeated in the House of Commons seems arithmetically irrefutable at present. She has produced a fudge in the hope of securing sufficient support, and perhaps she could get it through. The chances have increased a little by her readiness to face down the DUP. They have undermined their own position, particularly in Northern Ireland, by putting all the emphasis on a false constitutional premise instead of on the economic one. There is, I gather from Belfast, good news in the small print of the document for the farmers of Northern Ireland. At a more prosaic level, their absence from the Government’s lobby in the Commons will mean that more Labour members who would not otherwise be prepared to vote alongside the DUP may be prepared to defy their own front bench. Even so, it is an exceedingly slim possibility.

What seems much more likely is that, her deal having been rejected in the much-advertised “meaningful vote”, no other course would be open, other than a second referendum. Given, that is, that Mrs May can survive such a defeat – which she probably can, for the reasons given above – and given that there will not be a general election because the Conservatives do not want one (turkeys, Christmas etc.), a second vote would meet with considerable public approval and, yes, with roars of outrage from those who will say that the people have already spoken.

At a recent private meeting of a dozen influential very senior diplomats and civil servants, there was unanimity on this being the probable outcome. There are problems. There will be rows and ranting. The timescale before 29 March is difficult, but the European negotiators are expected to be “helpful”, given their preference for the status quo – that is, the UK remaining in the European Union and the possibility that this might indeed be the result. And if there was to be a “people’s vote”, staying in would probably be one of three options, along with the present deal or no deal at all.

These are bold predictions. They may be wrong. But they are inspired by my having seen the light – and it just might be the one to illuminate a satisfactory democratic outcome.

Julia Langdon is The Tablet’s lobby correspondent.

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