Of all the possible outcomes on Brexit one stands out as more unpleasant, more outrageous, more guaranteed to provoke mass anger in the country than any other. No, not Britain leaving the EU on 29 March with no deal – however much that would send some into their imaginary bunkers for fear of the sky falling in. It is Britain being made to vote in a second referendum – without the option of no deal on the ballot paper.
Worryingly, this is exactly the outcome which a large part of the Labour party – including, crucially, the leadership – seem intent on achieving. Two weeks ago, the leadership produced a briefing for its MPs which raised the possibility of Labour backing a version of May’s deal – on condition that it was affirmed in a referendum. But, according to the briefing, there would be only two questions on the ballot paper: support the deal or remain in the EU on current terms. As for giving the people an option of leaving the EU with no deal, the briefing read:
“There’s no majority for a no-deal outcome and Labour would not countenance supporting no deal as an option.”
In other words, the people would be given two options: between remaining in the EU and a botched deal which could result in Britain being trapped in the backstop, the single market and customs union indefinitely, forced to take rules from Brussels but without any say in the making of those rules. The fabled Hobson would have been proud.
Labour’s plan, which has the paws of Keir Starmer all over it, could only succeed if a significant number of Conservatives could be persuaded to vote for an amendment requiring May’s deal to be approved in a second referendum. Given that government policy is currently sworn against a second referendum this might seem unlikely. Nevertheless, Brexiteers are going to have to be extremely careful of this ambush happening at some time over the next 10 days or so. If May’s deal – as seems certain – is defeated heavily for a second time tomorrow, it is just about possible to imagine her horse-trading with Labour to get her deal through the Commons. After all, what would she have to lose by infuriating the European Research Group, given that she would be pretty well doomed as Prime Minister? She could just decide that her deal was a personal legacy, more important than keeping the Conservative party together.
But it wouldn’t just by Tory Brexiteers who would be left fuming if the country were made to vote in a second referendum between May’s deal and no-Brexit. Labour’s briefing is utterly misguided in claiming that no deal has such little support in the country that it could be ruled out as an option. On the contrary, yesterday’s Daily Telegraph poll showed that 44 per cent of the population are now in favour of leaving without a deal, with only 30 per cent opposed.
Yes, this is after all the scare stories, all the grim prophecies of food shortages, economic collapse and everything else that have been continuously pumped out by MPs, think-tanks, Mark Carney and so on (although the Bank of England governor has since revised downwards his worst-case scenario). The public does not swallow Project Fear II any more than it swallowed Project Fear I – much of which has already proved to be fantasy. The growing mood in the country – and utterly at odds with that at Westminster – is that the country wants Brexit over and done with.
I don’t think a second referendum would have been a bad thing, had it been held in time for us to leave on 29 March. In fact, I have twice suggested here that the impasse over Brexit could best be resolved via a three-way referendum – giving voters three choices, May’s deal, no-deal and no-Brexit, with first and second preferences. I still think the past two months would have been better spent putting the matter back to the people rather than watching MPs (a majority of whom never wanted Brexit in the first place) tie themselves in knots. But if we are to have a second referendum it is absolutely vital that it contains all three of those options. Anything less would be seen as an establishment stitch-up. Were it to be imposed on the country I know what I and millions others would do: add a box at the bottom and mark it ‘no deal’. The number of spoiled papers read out by returning officers would give a very clear idea of how the public had really voted. There would be outrage, from which our democracy would not recover for a long time.
If Britain were to vote Remain in a three-way second referendum and, as a result, we ended up staying in the EU, that would anger a lot of people, yet no-one could reasonably argue against the result. But to have the thing engineered through a sham referendum which excluded the option which appears to have the most support would be a very different, and very dark matter. Disgracefully, it is something which the opposition is quite openly plotting.