A People’s Vote would transform our political parties | Andrew Loy
The day is 30th March 2019. The United Kingdom is still a member of the European Union. Parliament voted down Theresa May’s Brexit deal, MPs mandated a Second Referendum/’People’s Vote’, Remain won (52/48), and Brexit was cancelled. With the Prime Minister’s deal almost certain to be rejected, this possibility is becoming increasingly likely. This article is not some Remoaner fantasy, nor Brexiteer diatribe. I simply want to consider the consequences of this outcome on party politics, with the caveat that anything I write will likely be out of date before I even commit metaphorical pen to paper. In the words of Stingray, ‘anything can happen in the next half hour’.
Why bother raising this subject? Remainers believe that a second referendum would resolve the Brexit debate forever (except if Leave won again, in which case ‘Best out of Five’ would have to be the new slogan). On the other hand, most Brexiteers are unwilling even to discuss it, beyond ominous warnings of unspecified horrors to come – the rise of Ukip+++, a British Trump, or perhaps even civil violence. The assumption underlying both of these standpoints is that all parties would accept the new result and forget about Brexit.
But is that true? The first referendum did not suddenly convert all politicians into ardent Brexiteers, nor would a second do the reverse. The Lib Dems, SNP, and other minor parties continued to oppose Brexit after the vote. Perhaps Labour did too, but no one can tell, least of all Jeremy Corbyn. After a Remain win in a second referendum, those who wanted to press on with Brexit could do so without calling for a third. As Remainers dispute the legitimacy of the first, so Brexiteers could reject the second. Their headline argument would be: the EU always makes countries keep voting until they get the right result; we have been swindled. Each side would have an expression of ‘the will of the people’ to justify its position. Besides the possibility of a continued Leave/Remain divide in the parties, there would be other consequences, too.
Let us begin with the minor parties. The SNP would be affected the most. The cancellation of Brexit would destroy the case for Remain-majority Scotland to hold another independence referendum. The 2014 vote was meant to settle the issue for a generation, and Brexit is the only argument against that finality. Also, as has been pointed out by many, a ‘vote on the deal’ would present a precedent for the Scottish independence process. A Remain win would put to bed any talk of a border poll in Northern Ireland. It might allow a resumption of devolved government, too.
There is little to say about the Lib Dems, since their supporters already back what Vince Cable would call ‘an exit from Brexit’ (that is, if he doesn’t mix up his words and have an exotic spresm). At least it would allow them to stop obsessing about Brexit and actually come up with some policies.
The effect on Labour might be more significant. I am assuming that, in the event of a second referendum, Labour MPs would have voted for it. Since a large majority of members and voters were Remainers and have been pushing the party to back the People’s Vote campaign, it would lose little support. For Labour Leavers, including ex-UKIP voters, the attraction of Corbyn’s radical programme would probably keep them on side, especially if we accept the notion that the Leave victory was in part an expression of anti-establishment sentiment. In short, the Labour Party would finally have a definitive position on Brexit: Remain.
By far the most interesting to consider is the Conservative Party. The party’s policy is to oppose a second referendum. Some would defy the whip – I doubt more than a dozen, perhaps two dozen. On the whole, though, the party would continue to back Brexit. Certainly, it is inconceivable that backbenchers such as Sir Bill Cash, John Redwood, and Philip Davies would give up after decades of battling to leave the EU. Furthermore, at least since 2017, Conservative supporters are overwhelmingly Brexit-backing. For the party leadership to say ‘well, that was a relief. Now we don’t have to carry on with that madness’ would be, for want of a more original term, electoral suicide.
Here is a chain of events which is not unlikely. The opposition parties and a few Conservative rebels force a second referendum. Remain wins. In disgust that she could allow this to happen, backbenchers trigger a vote of no confidence. Theresa May loses. In the resultant leadership election, the Brexiteer candidate vows to press on with leaving the EU (either immediately, or when the party is next in office – by now, there may have been a general election, quite conceivably a Conservative loss). He or she wins by a landslide. At this point, the rebels who voted for the second referendum leave the party, if they have not done so already. The outcome? The Conservative Party becomes the true party of Brexit. As the only major Brexit-backing party, the potential support base would be the original 52 per cent. The hurdles to winning their votes would be apathy and a lack of trust. Led by someone who actually believes in Brexit, however, and with truly conservative policies to appeal to the Leave demographic, a vote share in the mid 40s would be attainable, giving a huge parliamentary majority. Brexit would be implemented after all.
Maybe this is all just wishful thinking. Yes – I admit it – for me this would be the stuff of exotic spresms. But what of the alternative? If the Conservatives quietly delighted in a Remain win and dropped support for Brexit, there would be an exodus of party members, voters, and probably more than a few MPs. UKIP would spring back, or maybe Jeremy Hosking’s threatened third/fourth party (depending on whether you bother to count the Lib Dems). This is also the territory of those ominous threats about a second referendum’s catastrophic consequences.
A ‘People’s Vote’ would not solve the European Question (to misquote 1066 and All That, whenever the British come close to answering the European Question, it is secretly changed). But nor would anarchy necessarily reign. There is a ‘third way’. A Conservative way.