Geraint Talfan-Davies on Gordian knots and the chances of a new referendum
Theresa May is this week heading for a triple defeat. Tonight her illusory deal will be voted down. Tomorrow Parliament will take a suicidal ‘no deal’ scenario off the table. On Thursday, the Article 50 period will be extended to take us beyond the 29 March cliff edge that has been threatening for the past two years.
To say that these votes will be ‘meaningful votes’ is an understatement. Together they will prove a crucial turning point in the whole Brexit saga.
Given the surreal course of events over the last two years, it is possible that by the end of the week I will be asked to eat my words. If so, so be it. But for the moment the realistic prospect is as I have outlined.
It is only weeks since Mrs May’s ‘deal’ – and I believe inverted commas around the word deal are fully justified – was defeated by the largest majority in parliamentary history. She now dares to bring it back to the House of Commons virtually unchanged and to urge us from the fishing port of Grimsby to push on and ‘get it done’ to allow the nation to get on with ‘the other important issues that people care about’.
Who is she kidding? All her imperfect ‘deal’ does is to clear away the necessary preliminaries about our past obligations to allow negotiations on our future to begin. Those negotiations will last for years. The idea that to vote for her ‘deal’ is a vote for the end of uncertainty is a delusion. If you think the last two years have been difficult, you have seen nothing yet.
A combination of continuing austerity and years of negotiation when we have already abandoned all leverage, is going to ensure a massive diversion from ‘the important issues that people care about’ for a very long time indeed.
There were other parts of her Grimsby plea to the nation that strain credulity. The notion of Theresa May in particular and this government in general as dependable champions of workers’ rights is scarcely credible – sure to be grist to the mill in years to come for programmes like Have I Got News For You.
And then there’s the ‘let’s get it done’ routine that is merely a measure of frustration, and in that sense understandable. Endless groundhog days do not energise anyone – politicians, campaigners or the general public. There have been signs of ‘Brexit fatigue’ not only in this country but also in the rest of Europe, even in the utterances of M. Barnier.
But on a two-day visit to the European Parliament in Brussels last week, as part of a small delegation representing more than 170 pro-EU grassroots groups in the UK, I did not find that weariness in any way lessening the resolve to get to the right long-term answer.
We had meetings with MEPs and with two senior members of the European Parliament’s Brexit Steering Group – Philippe Lamberts, a Belgian politician who is co-Chair of the Greens/European Free Alliance group, and Danuta Huebner, from Poland, who is from the European People’s Party, Chair of the Parliament’s Constitutional Affairs Committee and a former EU Regional Policy Commissioner.
She knows as well as anyone the regional inequalities that afflict both the EU and the UK.
We stressed that with active pro-EU sentiment in the UK stronger than it has ever been in our history, this was no time for EU negotiators to be providing words of succour simply to satisfy the members of the ERG.
We came away with a strong sense of three things:
- first, that there are no cracks in European unity on the Brexit issue, not because of any wish to punish the UK, but because of the overriding importance of preserving the continental single market with all its necessary implications;
- second, a deep pervasive sadness at the 2016 referendum result and, despite a degree of exasperation with our endless Parliamentary deadlock, a readiness to welcome Britain back fully into the EU fold should opinion here change;
- and third, a willingness to accommodate the extra time needed to put the issue back to the British people.
But that willingness to grant us extra time beyond 29th March is conditional. So far Mrs May has contemplated only a short technical extension for a couple of months to complete the necessary legislation to effect Brexit if her deal passes the Commons.
Some in the UK have mooted a 21-month extension that would effectively extend the Article 50 period to the end of the proposed transition period. This would be flatly rejected by the EU, and two grounds: a fear that, in the current state of British politics, this would give too much time and space for more extreme Brexiteers to start canvassing a range of other options; and second, that the EU cannot negotiate third country status for the UK while we remain a member state.
The more realistic option would be a 6-9 month extension to allow for a new referendum in October or November of this year. Although this would require unanimity amongst the EU’s member states, a request for an extension for the express purpose of a public vote would almost certainly be granted.
So once again we come back to the Gordian knot of Commons arithmetic, and more particularly to the need for the Labour party to nail its colours to the mast rather than trying to stick them to the mast with wet sellotape.
A week ago Labour was heralding the fact that a new referendum was firmly on the agenda. Yet last Sunday morning while Keir Starmer was bigging up the referendum on Sky News, on Andrew Marr’s weekly television confessional, John McDonnell was relegating a referendum to the status of a very last resort only to be contemplated, with drooping shoulders, to placate the tiresome when all else has failed.
As they approach the lobbies tonight and for the remainder of the week Labour Party waverers need to think very hard.
They know they must vote down Theresa May’s ‘deal’, not only for the sake of Ireland, north and south, but also because it is a deeply inadequate document for anyone concerned with our country’s economic and strategic future in the world. They also know that they cannot contemplate the prospect of a ‘no deal’ exit, as it would be economically disastrous.
They must also know that a Norway style deal being peddled by a few, is not a proper option for a country of our size. It would leave us lingering outside the doors of Europe’s decision-making chambers, while still paying hefty dues.
So what then? There is no current prospect of the Conservative Party volunteering a general election. But were such an election to be called Labour surely could not put forward a manifesto devoid of a commitment to a ‘confirmatory referendum’ to be held in the event that it found itself in power and managed to negotiate some alternative deal.
Without such a commitment it will increase its chances of losing an election, because it will be seen to have ignored the known wishes of a majority of its party and Labour voters. And were it to scrape a small majority it would find itself in the unhappy position of having to implement Brexit in the worst of economic circumstances.
A referendum is the only way to break this logjam. It would not be an easy exercise, but it would be a democratic one. And for those who reject the idea for fear of its divisiveness, I’m afraid that we are back with Franklin Roosevelt: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”