A week after the High Court’s Article 50 ruling, Brexit’s opponents are gathering their forces. The Liberal Democrats have pledged not to trigger EU withdrawal unless the government promises a referendum on the eventual deal. “So my position is very clear … the people are sovereign,” declared Tim Farron. Though no Brexiter will admit as much, one reason they oppose a second referendum is the risk it could be lost. The public narrowly voted to Leave in June but that offer may appear less tempting without the accompanying promise of £350m a week for the NHS and an end to VAT on fuel bills. Indeed, voters are instead likely to face the prospect of continued EU budget contributions in return for some degree of single market access.
The SNP will join the Liberal Democrats in voting against Article 50. Not, says Nicola Sturgeon, because she wants to “thwart the will of people in England and Wales” but “because SNP MPs represent constituencies in Scotland and every single constituency in Scotland voted to remain”. The anti-Brexiters also include Northern Ireland’s SDLP and a smattering of Labour MPs. David Lammy, Thangam Debbonaire and Daniel Zeichner have all pledged to vote against Article 50. They will be joined by Helen Hayes and Catherine West, who represent two heavily pro-Remain constituencies (Dulwich, and Hornsey and Wood Green), and Owen Smith, who has long argued for a second referendum.
The Labour leadership, however, opposes this stance. Both Jeremy Corbyn and shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer have confirmed that the party will not vote against Article 50 – though it may seek to amend any legislation to ensure continued membership of the single market and the customs union. Mindful that 65 per cent of Labour constituencies backed Leave, most backbenchers endorse this position.
With the exception of Ken Clarke (who has dismissed the referendum as an “opinion poll”), Tory Remainers will also not seek to obstruct the government. Nicky Morgan and Anna Soubry have promised to vote for Article 50 provided that Theresa May offers more details of her negotiating stance – a demand No.10 has accepted. But the Tory rebellion has been deferred, rather than cancelled. They and others intend to fight for single market membership when the Great Repeal Bill is published next spring.
There is not a Commons majority for blocking Brexit but there is one for a “soft Brexit”. It is this which explains why, though May does not want an early general election, she may need one. The next contest, she said during her India trip, “should be” in 2020. That, Tory MPs note, is not the same as saying it will be.