After a weekend of politicians feuding over the merits of a second referendum, Barry Gardiner, Andy Burnham and Conor Burns have become the latest politicians to criticise the People’s Vote campaign to do just this. Meanwhile the BBC reports of a leaked memo which shows that the group has its eye on changing Labour policy – encouraging MPs and activists to submit a motion at Labour conference next month.
As I reveal in this week’s Spectator, the People’s Vote campaign – which argues the public should have a say on the final deal – has a three-point Parliamentary strategy when it comes to bringing about a second referendum. Although the ‘Stop Brexit’ campaign has taken many forms since the referendum result two years ago – with legal challenges, anti-Brexit campaign groups and talk of a new party – this is the first time the various grassroots Remain organisations have come together behind a single message.
Those involved are feeling more optimistic than they have in months. Since Theresa May’s Chequers Brexit compromise has been denounced by Brexiteers and Remainers alike, the chance of no deal may have risen — but so, they say, has the chance of no Brexit. They are targeting a ‘mushy middle’ of the electorate. Message-testing earlier this year found that the phrase ‘people’s vote’ appeals to soft Leavers and soft Remainers. People who mistrust Brexit stories on either side have switched off. ‘People have PTSD on Brexit now,’ said a voter in a recent focus group. Campaigners think such people will come off the fence only once they see what May comes back from Brussels with in October. This is when the polls ought to shift.
So a plan has emerged, with three main parts:
- The first is to persuade Jeremy Corbyn to drop opposition to a new referendum. We can expect a move to be made at the Labour party conference next month, perhaps a motion called where members will seek to force the leadership’s hand. This was stopped last year, but the mood has changed and some pro-Corbyn Momentum figures now support a second referendum. Even if the party doesn’t go the whole hog, it could be forced into adopting a compromise that would make a second vote consistent with Labour policy.
- The next part is to woo Labour MPs. Most back Remain, but often out of deference to their constituents, say that they consider the matter closed. Now about 20 or 30 Labour MPs are thought to be open to persuasion — such as Caroline Flint, Gareth Snell and even eurosceptic Dennis Skinner.
- The third part, perhaps the hardest, is a charm offensive to Tories. The likes of Anna Soubry, Sarah Wollaston and Justine Greening have already come out in favour of a second referendum but up to 20 more Tories are seen to be susceptible. They tend to be the MPs who have flirted with Brexit rebellion previously like Heidi Allen, Paul Masterton and Nicky Morgan.
With enough MPs, the aim is to pounce when the final deal comes to a vote — perhaps in October or November — at which point rebels could insert a motion proposing a new referendum on May’s deal. It would be at the discretion of Speaker John Bercow to decide whether to force a vote. The greater the cross-party support, the more chance of Mr Bercow permitting it. ‘It’s worth a shot, it might just work,’ explains a figure involved in the planning.
The Eurosceptic backlash is seen as key to the Remain end goal. If the Tory Brexiteers, led by Jacob Rees-Mogg, try to sink May’s Brexit plans, as many as 80 Conservative MPs could refuse to vote it through. That would put more power with the People’s Vote backers. ‘We would say “we’ll vote for this if you adopt the amendment”.’
There are many reasons the plan could fail – but so long as the Conservative party is divided on Brexit, the higher the chance of success.