The notion that there should be a vote at the end of the Brexit talks on whether to accept the deal has gone from a fringe idea to the mainstream in the past few months. It seems entirely reasonable that we should have the right to choose whether we still want to leave the EU when we know what Brexit means.
But many of those who are sympathetic to the idea don’t believe we can get a people’s vote. And even if we do, they worry that pro-Europeans such as me will fail to persuade the people that we should then stay in the EU.
The first concern is often linked to a specific view about the mechanics of getting a people’s vote.
For example, some people think we can only get one if Labour backs the idea, forces a general election and then wins it. But Tory Brexiteers such as Jacob Rees-Mogg won’t be so crazy to join Jeremy Corbyn in a vote of no confidence against Theresa May, even though they are livid with the deal she is trying to negotiate.
Others say we can only get a people’s vote if the Prime Minister herself wants one. But why on earth would she agree to that? She has promised time and again that there won’t be another vote.
Yet others say we can only get one if parliament votes down the deal May negotiates. But we may then crash out of the EU with no deal at all rather than get a people’s vote. Since pro-European Tories such as Dominic Grieve will never take that risk, we’ll never get a majority to vote down the Prime Minister’s deal.
These objections highlight genuine obstacles. But none is decisive.
Are we really sure that the Mogglodytes won’t do something barmy if the PM comes back with a deal even more miserable than her Chequers proposal? Are we certain Grieve won’t vote against such a deal? Do we really know that May herself won’t flip the decision to the people so she can share responsibility for the subsequent car crash? It’s not as though she always keeps her word: remember all those promises about not holding a second election?
What’s more, the scenarios outlined above aren’t the only routes to get a people’s vote. Here are two more: the PM tries to drive us out of the EU without any deal at all, at which point parliament says she must first ask the electorate; and a political crisis leads to the creation of a national unity government, which decides it needs the legitimacy of a public vote to back whatever deal it negotiates.
My own favourite isn’t even one of these. It is that parliament neither supports the Prime Minister’s deal nor rejects it. Instead, it amends the motion to approve the deal by saying the people must be asked what they think – with the option to stay in the EU if they don’t like what is on offer. That way, there’s never any risk of crashing out with no deal. Why wouldn’t Grieve and his gang support that?
It might be said that none of these scenarios is terribly likely. But the political situation is so volatile that no specific outcome is a slam dunk. Who, for example, can predict with confidence that May will reach a deal and get a majority of MPs to back it? If she can’t, every other option could lead to a people’s vote – even if we can’t be sure of the exact route that would get us there.
“Ok”, you might say, “but why are you so confident that you would win such a vote and persuade the people we should stay in the EU?”
I’m not. It would be the fight of our lives. But we would have a good chance of winning for three reasons.
First, public opinion is already shifting in our direction. Although the people aren’t yet decisively against Brexit, they know the talks are going terribly. Hardly anybody likes the look of Chequers either; it would be the worst of both worlds, damaging both our prosperity and our power. So, if we get a people’s vote, momentum will be on our side. That’s incredibly valuable.
Second, we are learning the lessons of the referendum. Two years ago, the campaign to stay in the EU was hamstrung because it was controlled by David Cameron. We are now the insurgents, not the establishment. The only arrow in pro-Europeans’ quivers then was “project fear”. Although it is right to warn about the dangers of Brexit, that’s not enough. We must articulate a positive vision for the UK – especially a fairer society where people have more control over their lives – and show how this can be achieved much better by staying in the EU than quitting.
Third, the referendum was a choice between the reality of “in” and fantasy of “out”. At the end of the talks, we will know what Brexit means. So a people’s vote will be the choice between the reality of in and the reality of out. Boris Johnson will no longer be able to spout his bilge about having our cake and eating it. None of what he promised will have come to fruition.
Indeed, neither Johnson nor Nigel Farage – the Brexiteers’ two big guns during the referendum – are likely to back the Prime Minister’s deal. One even wonders whether she would support it herself, as she doesn’t believe in Brexit. But if she does, pro-Europeans shouldn’t quake. She is hardly a star campaigner.
This is not to say victory is assured. Far from it. But good things in life rarely come without risk – and it’s not as if getting a people’s vote would make things worse.
If the government brings back a miserable deal, we will at least have a chance to shoot it down. And if it wants to crash out with no deal at all, we will also have a chance to stop the madness. That’s better than being driven passively over the cliff like the Gadarene swine in the Bible.
So let’s strain every sinew in the coming months to get a people’s vote – and, if we succeed, let’s strain every sinew in the subsequent ones to win it.