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The ten Brexit questions no-one’s giving a straight answer to

Labour now backs a second referendum. But the Tories are seriously freewheeling towards No Deal (today’s vote in parliament not withstanding). What now?

Mark Perryman
18 July 2019
Post it notes saying 'right', 'wrong', and '?'
Straight answers on Brexit are hard to find

Labour now backs a second referendum. But the Tories are now seriously freewheeling towards No Deal (today’s vote in parliament not withstanding). What now?

After a frantic few weeks of Tom Watson grandstanding, petitions, and dithering by its National Executive Committee, Labour has plumped for a second referendum just as the Tories move the goalposts once more. The Johnson accession, won on a promise to leave with (it seems) No Deal by 31st October.

Rather than settling how a Johnson Premiership hurtling towards a “do or die” Halloween deadline might be stopped; all Labour’s current position has done has is pile up rather a lot of questions. So, deep breath, here goes.

1 Is Jeremy Corbyn against the Tories’ Brexit?

In every meaningful vote Jeremy Corbyn hasn’t simply voted against a Tory Brexit, he has helped ensure the vote against it is maximised across all parties. Last month this brought the opposition frustratingly close to stopping No Deal being able to go through on the nod, and previously, nearly winning a vote of no Confidence in the government and on three separate occasions forcing the rejection of May’s deal.

2 If a new PM gets a No Deal through, whither a second referendum?

Stopping No Deal is the immediate priority. Amber Rudd’s surrender to a Johnson No Deal, Caroline Flint and Sarah Champion saying publicly that they will vote for No Deal, all were early indications of how close Johnson is to making that happen. Today’s successful vote in the Commons to seek to prevent a new PM suspending parliament is encouraging, but as Stephen Bush points out in the New Statesman today, chances of a No Deal are still high as MPs still seem a long way from agreeing a sustained way forward on actually blocking No Deal. And if No Deal isn’t stopped then the case for a second referendum borders on the irrelevant.

3 What about Labour’s Brexit rebels?

The relationship of Labour’s Brexit rebels to the Corbyn project has been under-examined by Remainers and the political commentariat. Most of the Labour rebel votes that have repeatedly helped the Tories defeat Labour and the anti-Brexit opposition, come from the traditional Labour right, such as John Mann, Caroline Flint, Kate Hoey and now ex-Labour Ian Austin (the latter two even voting against today’s motion to block the suspension of parliament). These are joined by Gareth Snell, Ruth Smeeth and others not so easily pigeonholed but who define themselves as anti-Corbyn. Then there’s Lisa Nandy, who was Owen Smith’s campaign manager in the 2016 Leadership Election. The overwhelming majority who would see through No Deal from Labour’s right and centre-right. The Corbynite Left Eurosceptics MPs have largely, with the exception of Ronnie Campbell, followed Corbyn’s opposition to a Tory Brexit. But that’s not quite how its portrayed in the media. One of the recent vocal rebels, Emma Lewell-Buck, was ludicrously foregrounded as an ‘ex-Corbyn’ minister, when she resigned from the Shadow Cabinet as long back as 2016 to campaign for Owen Smith.

Isn’t it about time Tom Watson put down his foghorn means of communicating with Corbyn and instead had a quiet word in the ear of his political mates on his wing of the party? Because to date he has been singularly unsuccessful in persuading the to vote any way except for against a second referendum and for a Tory Brexit.

4 Any sign of a parliamentary majority for a 2nd Referendum?

Short of Johnson imposing and enforcing a 3-line whip for a ‘Back Me or Sack Me’ referendum (!) there is no parliamentary majority for a Second Referendum. There’s enough Labour rebels who will vote against, and not enough Tory rebels who will vote for. With no obvious prospect of this changing prior to a General Election there remains no immediate prospect of one.

5 What question on any referendum ballot paper?

From the start the second referendum campaign has been fatally undermined by being very obviously pro-Remain. The ‘you got it wrong the first time, try, try, and try again brigade’ label sticks with good cause. Of course Leavers on the whole don’t see the need for another vote, they won. But now with No Deal the situation has changed. If the 2nd Referendum is to gain the necessary support there’s only one question on the ballot paper that will do it, No Deal vs Remain.

6 Does Labour know what support for 2nd Referendum will cost in votes

There is little doubt that there is huge support for a second referendum amongst Labour members, including the trade unions. And we know that this is true of Labour voters too. But in the electoral system we have, this is entirely different to suggesting the same is true of Labour votes where they most matter, ie, in Labour ‘s 66 target seats that it needs to secure an overall majority and its 19 defences where Labour MPs have a majority under 1000.

And this isn’t the stereotypical Northern Labour vs Metropolitan Labour divide either. I live in Sussex, and Labour’s 2 target seats here voted 56% Leave in Hastings and Rye, and 58% Leave in Crawley. Of course by backing a second referendum Labour may gain some votes in these and other seats but it is just as likely to lose votes in these and other seats too.

7 Will there be an autumn early General Election?

Why? If there’s one thing that unites all wings of the Tory Party it is clinging on to power at all costs. It will be tight for Johnson but after the last vote of no confidence fell short by just a handful of votes, Vince Cable declared the Lib Dems wouldn’t back another. Will their new leader? Sarah Champion, apart from backing No Deal, even told an interviewer that if there was a No Confidence vote in the government she wasn’t sure how she’d vote. Given the current febrile atmosphere in the PLP how many Labour MPs are likewise unsure? Or the various independents? Will any Tory MPs vote to bring down their own government? Unlikely. And given May’s disastrous snap election, despite clearer poll leads, it seems unlikely Johnson having just fulfilled his life’s ambition would risk promptly losing it in a back me or sack me General Election.

8 What kind of 2nd referendum if Labour wins a General Election?

For the past three years Keir Starmer has been shuttling back and forth to Brussels trying to create the basis of a Labour ‘soft Brexit’. Universally respected across the Labour Party and beyond, almost everybody across the Labour Party – and many beyond it – agree he’s done a very good job in near-impossible circumstances. But the position now being demanded of Labour, before a General Election has even been announced, is that all of this be abandoned for a Remain vs Keir’s Deal referendum with Labour to campaign against its own deal, whatever that might be. Plainly this make no sense, but never mind?!

9 Is everything about Brexit?

In my part of Sussex, Lewes, our primary schools are threatened with privatisation. Our High Street shops are closing at such a rate there’s not enough charity shops to take their place. There are three foodbanks, all oversubscribed and under-supplied. The train service to London is both the most expensive, and the worst in all of Europe. None of this was caused by Brexit, while it may be worsened by Brexit the solutions required are bigger than whether we remain or leave. It’s not a distraction to make this case, quite the opposite.

10 What kind of 2nd Referendum result will satisfy whom?

If we have a second referendum and the result is 51% Remain vs 49% No Deal, what then? 3rd time unlucky?

There is of course a good case that never mind all this, the democratic will of the Labour membership is to have a second referendum. That the votes which would be lost, Labour is losing anyway for a multiplicity of factors. That the votes gained are where the party’s future lies – and that most importantly it’s the right thing to do in any case. Fair enough. But whilst the party has on occasion dithered its essential position has been correct – to find a way out of the Brexit impasse that in the words of Gary Younge ‘turns “them” and “us” into “we”’. Dithering? Yes. But a whole lot better than a party which in all seriousness campaigns under the banner ‘Bollocks to Brexit.’ What kind of country does such a slogan envisage? What kind of healing process does it offer, what kind of hateful outcome is it likely to produce? One neither liberal, nor democratic.

OK, it’s taken it a while but Labour backing a second referendum is almost the easy part. Coming up with the arguments, and how to actively contribute towards the creation of a new ‘we’ is the difficult, and far more important part.

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