This evening, MPs have a chance to try and take control of Brexit by voting on a series of amendments to a government motion on extending Article 50. With Theresa May struggling to keep any semblance of control after her deal was voted down for a second time on Tuesday evening, there is a real worry in government that May could be heading for her third consecutive Commons defeat in as many days. Among the amendments to be voted on are a call for indicative votes on Brexit scenarios, an Article 50 extension accompanied by a promise to rethink the current strategy and a pledge for a second referendum.
To the surprise of many, John Bercow selected TIG MP Sarah Wollaston’s second referendum amendment calling for the government to bring legislation for a public vote with Remain as an option. Given that Jeremy Corbyn has said his party supports a second referendum and there’s an active ‘People’s Vote’ campaign which has been lobbying MPs for over a year on the issue, one could be forgiven for believing it might just pass. However, as soon as the amendment was selected, both Labour and ‘People’s Vote’ announced that they were… not backing it.
Keir Starmer has said Labour MPs will abstain – as while the party is ‘supportive of the principle’ there is ‘a question of timing’. Meanwhile, Alastair Campbell of the ‘People’s Vote’ campaign has said that despite campaigning on the issue for years it’s ‘wrong to press a people’s vote amendment today when the issue is [article 50] extension’. He argues that a second referendum is ‘a possible solution to the current crisis, not an option within it’. All of this is fairly helpful to the newly formed Independent Group as they can now claim they are the political group truly behind a second referendum.
Now the real reasons for the frosty reception today are twofold. Firstly, the Labour party remains divided on Brexit. Were Jeremy Corbyn to instruct MPs to vote for the second referendum amendment, it would result in rebellions and potential resignation. There could also be a voter backlash. But the reason many of those who are set on a second referendum are reluctant to vote tonight is that it could fail. At present, even if the Labour party whipped for it and the ‘People’s Vote’ campaigned asked all its supportive MPs to back the amendment, it is unlikely it would pass. What campaigners desperately want to avoid is a moment where it becomes clear a second public vote lacks support. This is in part because they believe over time more MPs will come around. If other options are ruled out and a long extension is granted, these MPs argue that a second referendum will start to be seen as the solution.