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28 March 2019

The indicative votes might persuade those fed up with Brexit to back a fresh referendum

Here comes Brexit phase 2.

By Ed Davey

With the Prime Minister’s resignation notice and Westminster tea rooms abuzz with talk that the DUP and some ERG Brexiteers are contemplating a feast of their own words, the moment many of us have dreaded may still happen.

Faced with Wednesday’s historic parliamentary revolution aimed at rescuing our country, Britain’s hard right might well embrace the hard Brexit that many of them have spoken passionately against. Meaningful Vote 3 may take place before this weekend, and pass.

Of course, I hope that won’t happen. Set against Boris Johnson’s U-turn, and the wider rumour mill that the Prime Minister might be about to squeak her discredited Withdrawal Agreement through the House, stands a combination of tight parliamentary arithmetic and last night’s indicative votes.

With British politics in its most febrile state since the ousting of Chamberlain, parliament could still resist the hard right. It should listen to the alternative directions MPs have clearly signalled.

In particular, Conservative Remainers who previously backed the Prime Minister’s deal should reflect on the indicative vote results. Many Tory Remainers backed May’s deal with reluctance, under the pressure of the Whips and through fear of a “no-deal” Brexit. Now they could make a dramatic choice: to put their country before their party, and allow the true will of unfettered MPs to speak again next week.

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After a truly historic day in the Commons, where parliament has at last stood up to Britain’s overbearing Executive, there is political space for brave MPs to defy the Whip – knowing that there are now clear paths out of Brexit hell.

With the indicative votes, MPs have whittled down the options – to a softer Customs Union Brexit or to giving the people the final say. It might now only take one or two more parliamentary debates for cross-party groupings to reach a settled consensus that could be presented to EU negotiators to agree a longer Article 50 extension. Given the chance, parliament might yet do in a week what the executive has failed to do in nearly three years.

Labour MPs’ votes may also be crucial in beating Meaningful Vote 3. And the indicative votes surely give Labour MPs, contemplating abstaining or even backing Theresa May, many reasons why they can hold their heads high and vote against the Prime Minister’s deal.

Labour MPs toying with voting through a Conservative Brexit, in the same lobbies as the DUP and ERG Tories, should reflect on the damage they would inflict on their own party – just when their own policy of a Customs Union has become one of the two serious options MPs have indicated support for.

As a Liberal Democrat, I take great heart from parliament’s unfettered expression of its views. Especially for the larger than expected support for a People’s Vote. The fact that the People’s Vote option won more votes than any other option, and had far greater support than the Prime Minister’s deal achieved on two occasions, is a massive step forward.

Arguing for giving the people the final say back in 2016 and 2017 was not easy for my party. It was lonely and unpopular. Yet Tim Farron and Vince Cable didn’t flinch – and the party united behind the only democratic way to continue the argument for Remain. Many have joined in since.

After last Saturday’s incredible People’s Vote march and recent significant swings to remain in the opinion polls, it feels like Britain is now a Remain country. This surely makes the case for a confirmatory vote even stronger.

And if parliament does get to debate the leading options from the indicative vote experiment, then there’s one rarely heard argument that may persuade people fed up with Brexit to back a People’s Vote.

That’s the fact that the People’s Vote is the quickest way to end this whole Brexit debacle. 

For even if the Prime Minister’s deal squeaks through, Brexit isn’t finished.

Because Brexit phase 2 is likely to last three or four years, at least.

That’s the unspoken reality that’s likely to dismay Brexit supporters when it becomes clear.

Set against such a never-ending Brexit, a People’s Vote held in early Autumn suddenly seems even more attractive.

Should a Brexit deal win, it ends any further political debate and gives public consent to the actual deal, allowing phase 2 negotiations to continue with greater cross-party support.

And if the public vote Remain, Brexit ends overnight. And bar the shouting, we can get back and focus on the issues that really matter to people – from the NHS to schools, from knife crime to our dysfunctional railways.

One more defeat for May’s deal could unlock so much.

Ed Davey is the Liberal Democrat MP for Kingston & Surbiton.

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