The Prime Minister’s speech yesterday, in which she announced a ‘ten-point offer’ to parliament for a ‘new Brexit deal’ has gone down like the proverbial cold cup of sick with many Conservative MPs. The rage isn’t just confined to the 28 Brexiteer hold-outs who voted against the deal on 29 March either – so far, another 40 MPs who previously voted for the deal have indicated they will not vote for the proposed Withdrawal Agreement Bill. Overall, with little sign of movement towards the deal from Labour, it seems the Prime Minister is going backwards.
A lot of the anger on the Tory side appears to be directed at May’s pledge to hold a parliamentary vote on holding a second referendum, which has been cited by MPs with very different Brexit preferences: from former Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab, to ‘Norway-Plus’ backer Robert Halfon.
However, many of the Prime Minister’s critics misinterpreted what she actually promised. She was not promising or supporting a further referendum – indeed, she made very clear that she remains firmly opposed to it, saying, ‘I do not believe this is a route that we should take.’ Giving MPs a vote on whether to hold a referendum is not the same as a promise to actually hold a referendum. If you don’t want a referendum, you don’t have to vote for it.
The argument that the Prime Minister’s comments transformed the Brexit deal into a ‘vehicle’ for a second referendum is also a strange one. Even without her promise yesterday, any MP could (and almost certainly would) have tabled an amendment seeking to make the deal subject to a referendum. May has merely provided time for a parliamentary vote which would almost certainly have happened anyway. She also said that the government would legislate for a referendum if parliament voted for it, but is this really a surprise? If a majority of MPs voted for a referendum, it would be close to impossible for the government to ignore them. (May should, however, have made clear that she personally would never lead the country into a second referendum – fear of this scenario has exacerbated the backlash from MPs desperate to replace her as leader.)
More importantly, offering MPs a vote on a referendum does not guarantee a referendum will take place – if anything, the reverse is true. There is still nothing like a clear majority for a so-called ‘confirmatory public vote’ in the House of Commons. It was defeated twice in the indicative vote process – by 27 votes on 27 March, and by 12 votes on 1 April. And these margins were artificially narrowed by the fact that the 28 Cabinet ministers did not take part in the indicative votes. With a higher turnout, the margin of defeat will likely be higher. Back in March, I crunched the numbers and estimated a majority of 63 against a second referendum. Even accounting for changes of heart since then, that is a lot of room for manoeuvre.
The reason why there is no majority for a second referendum is simple: there are more Labour MPs against it than Conservative MPs in favour of it. On the Conservative side, there are just six hardline supporters of a second referendum, plus a handful of others who have said they might back it as a last resort to ‘break the impasse’. Meanwhile, on the Labour side, there are at least 30 staunch opponents, and many more who have significant reservations. Tory MPs incandescent about a parliamentary vote on a referendum are forgetting that the numbers are very much in their favour. Indeed, one suspects that this is why pro-referendum MPs have also dismissed May’s promise – because they fear that having a binding vote on their preferred course of action would kill it off for good.
To sum up then, May has not promised a referendum – she has promised a parliamentary vote, in which the proposal would almost certainly be defeated. The furious reaction in Tory circles demonstrates the complete breakdown of trust between the Prime Minister and her backbenchers. But it’s also true that the longer the parliamentary impasse lasts, the more MPs may look to a referendum as a way out. If the Prime Minister’s critics really want to take Remain off the table, then the obvious way to do so is to back the Bill at second reading, vote down the referendum amendment, and take the UK out of the EU.