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17 December 2018

Who will blink first: the Prime Minister or the People’s Vote campaign?

There’s a no-deal Brexit at stake.

By Stephen Bush

Another referendum would do “irreparable damage” to British politics, “would likely leave us no further forward than the last”, and “further divide our country”, Theresa May will tell MPs today as she sets her face against a further plebiscite on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union. How seriously should we take her?

One problem that the Prime Minister has is that she has a proven track record of saying things that later turn out to be untrue, from the man who couldn’t be deported because he had a cat, her public and private assurances that there wouldn’t be an election, and now, her repeated description of the transition period as an “implementation period”, when there is nothing yet to be implemented and there may well have to be an implementation period after the transition period anyway. So, understandably, anything that May says is and should be treated with extreme scepticism.

But there are good reasons to believe that May’s latest promise might be kept, albeit not for reasons that have very much to do with her. For one thing, while parliamentary supporters of a second referendum are becoming more vocal, that doesn’t mean they are sufficiently numerous to secure a Commons majority for one, and don’t forget that it doesn’t just have to be a one-off majority but one capable of seeing off hostile amendments, setting the franchise, the rules of the referendum and so on. The prospects for reaching a majority have taken a further blow after two Conservative MPs you might expect to back one – Jonathan Djanogly on Twitter and Nicky Morgan at greater length over at ConservativeHome  have declared that they won’t, with Morgan going so far as to insist that she will never vote for another referendum, even should the government come out in support of one. (Less surprisingly, Boris Johnson has set himself against the idea in the Telegraph, which means you can probably rule out pro-Brexit MPs deciding that another referendum is a good way to see off British pro-Europeans for good.)

Then, of course, there’s Labour. Jeremy Corbyn’s central priority is to avoid taking political damage but even if the politics shifts to a point where the party leadership ends up formally backing another referendum, there will be a substantial rebellion. Ivan Lewis – currently without the whip – is exaggerating when he tweets that the “silent majority” of Labour MPs oppose another go-around, but it is true to say that Labour opponents of the idea are an under-reported and underappreciated group.

The calculation that both May and the People’s Vote campaign are making is that the threat of the cliff-edge will mean that people rally around their way out as a way to avoid the calamity of an unnegotiated exit. But it’s May who controls the legislative agenda, May who heads the executive and May who can’t be dislodged as leader of the Conservative Party until December 2019 – well after the end of the Article 50 process. It’s not clear why she’ll be the one who ends up blinking first.

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