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25 February 2019

Jeremy Corbyn has backed it, but the chances of another referendum are slim

It all depends on how many Labour MPs are willing to climb down, and how many Conservative MPs are willing to go over the top.

By Stephen Bush

The biggest barrier to another referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union is that most MPs don’t want one. 21 Labour MPs have voted against measures to make Brexit softer for fear of being seen to block Brexit, while seven Labour MPs have voted against measures to a softer Brexit due to an ideological commitment to Brexit as a political project. By my count, 43 have publicly committed to opposing another referendum, and that number is certainly too low as I have only been able to add to that as and when MPs, activists or aides have sent me the relevant election literature.

On the Conservative side, the overwhelming majority of Tory MPs are committed to delivering Brexit. Just 26 current Conservative MPs (plus Anna Soubry, Heidi Allen, and Sarah Wollaston, who have since defected) have rebelled against the whip to make Brexit softer. Just nine, including Soubry, Allen and Wollaston, are publicly committed to a second vote.

The political thinking behind Peter Kyle and Phil Wilson’s amendment, which would amend the accompanying legislation for the Withdrawal Bill to allow a vote on the deal is it allows MPs to tell Leave voters they backed the deal and Remain voters that they backed another referendum. It’s this amendment that Jeremy Corbyn has committed to backing after and if (and considering the balance of forces in the House of Commons, that essentially means when) his plans are defeated this week. 

The logic that this argument would fly is pretty shaky but it is important to remember that on the Labour side, there are MPs who are looking for something semi-plausible to say about why they have backed another referendum. (This is one reason why I think it is highly foolish of Brexiteers to talk of any extension past 29 March, or any Brexit other than no deal as a betrayal of Brexit, as some MPs will very probably say “Oh well, better hung for a sheep than a lamb” and vote for another referendum if they are going to be accused of betrayal merely for stopping a no deal exit.)

But are there enough? That’s the big question that will be settled over the coming weeks. A good early sign is how Yvette Cooper’s amendment to delay Brexit in the event that no deal has been passed by the House of Commons by 13 March does. It is getting closer and closer to Brexit day and while it is easy to get Conservative MPs to tell you privately they intend to rebel against the whip, very few have been willing to make the actual leap. It becomes harder and harder to believe that the leap will happen the longer it takes for a major rebellion to show up. Cooper is herself one of the 43 Labour MPs who have publicly committed to back Brexit and her political powerbase in the parliamentary party is strong among the group of Labour MPs who are most anxious about backing a second referendum. Bluntly if an amendment with her name on it to delay Brexit cannot pass the House of Commons then the chance for a second referendum is best compared to a snowball’s prospects in Hell.

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