Justine Greening’s call for a People’s Vote in the Times on 16th July is a refreshing development in an otherwise sterile Parliamentary scene. Indeed, it is highly depressing to see the moderate Conservatives again abandoning amendments (this time on the Customs Bill) which they have themselves drafted and which potentially had majority support in the Commons while Theresa May moves towards the views of the Brexiteers, which definitely do not.
So once again the Conservative pro-Europeans will end up voting through policies which the majority of voters – including Conservative voters – oppose and in which they do not personally believe, all in the name of “Party Unity”, while the Brexiteers get away with stabbing the PM in the back, as they have done with successive Conservative leaders for 40 years. It shows an astonishing paucity of moral fibre on the side of the moderates.
Into this miserable scene rides Ms Greening, who brings a logical clarity to the situation which is all too rare in British politics these days. She makes a number of important points:
- The Chequers compromise is unworkable in practice
- The EU is likely to reject most if not all of its more innovative features out of hand
- It doesn’t provide the clean break wanted by Brexiteers nor the close ties wanted by Remainers
- There is no parliamentary majority for any single vision of Brexit and little prospect of one
To all of this must surely be added that no workable Brexit looks anything like what was promised in 2016. Donald Trump apparently thinks its all quite simple; the Queen recognises that it is immensely complex. I know whose judgement I’d rather trust!
So Justine’s proposal is spot-on in tackling things as they are, not as we’d like them to be. It’s not to re-run the 2016 vote but rather to let people make an educated decision between a range of options once it is clear what those options are:
- Vote for the Theresa May deal, provided of course that she can actually get one (most likely, best termed: “bend-over Brexit”)
- Vote for a no-deal Brexit (“bankruptcy Brexit”)
- Vote to Remain (let’s call it “D-Day”, the moment when we return to the forefront in our own Continent)
Is the Greening plan perfect? Probably not as yet. There are a range of issues to resolve including:
- How do you make sure the next Referendum is fought on truth and facts, not lies and fantasies? Do you need some changes to electoral law?
- At what point does the “May plan” become finalised enough to put it to a vote? How long would we have to wait? What if the plan has not been agreed by the EU, wins the referendum and then still falls apart?
- Do we have time to correct the unequal rules under which longstanding residents with EU passports and UK citizens living long-term ion EU countries were banned from voting but recent arrivals from the Commonwealth were not?
- What rule will apply to MPs – and especially ministers and shadow ministers – who wish to diverge from party policy?
However, these are largely details. The bottom line is that however much real Tories (as opposed to UKIPite populists) may detest referenda, having got ourselves into this mess, it is hard to see any other mechanism which will get us out!
That’s why Tories Against Brexit will overcome our reservations and back the call for a People’s Vote.
What about the objections that will be thrown at us? Let’s not fear them – they are easy to rebut:
Are we going to have Neverendums?
In 1975 the UK had a defining Referendum on EU membership. The result wasn’t even close – a 2:1 vote to Remain in the EU. But the Brexiteers didn’t like it. They moaned on and on for years, destroying the Major government, hobbling the party in the 2000s and eventually forcing a new vote.
Their argument was that it had become clear that the EU we got wasn’t what was promised in 1975, a free trade project having become a political union (actually, that’s a lie too – their own documents were quite explicit about the political nature of the EEC back then). Well, now it’s clear that Brexit isn’t what was promised in 2016 so on the same logic, the people are also entitled to another say.
The people have already decided
Democracy didn’t die on 23rd June 2016. People voted to leave the port but with no clear destination. (If anything, they were promised the Bahamas and got Haiti). Now they can see what Brexit really looks like, by what right do you plan to ban them from having a say on where the ship should dock?
Anyway, if you’re so confident you are right, what’s wrong with having another vote? You are bound to win……
It is too divisive for the UK / the Conservative Party
The UK is as divided over this as it’s ever been on anything. And it will get worse. Remainers feel cheated because the Leavers lied. Leave voters are becoming disillusioned because Brexit won’t live up to the promises. How much better to let voters make an informed choice and put the matter to rest.
As for “it’s going to divide the Conservative Party”…..really? What planet are you living on if you think it’s united??
It’s about Parliamentary sovereignty – so let Parliament decide?
Oh yes – then why didn’t you let Parliament decide in 2016?
But rhetoric aside, there is a bigger and extremely important point here which the press and the politicians don’t seem able to address. Justine alludes to it in saying that Brexit has gone beyond party politics. The real point here is that party politics are themselves going off the rails. A process known as “party democracy” (sounds so good, doesn’t it) has actually handed power to a very tiny group of extremists.
There are officially about 100,000 Conservative Party Members, though the active number is maybe 20-30% smaller. Out of those activists, maybe 30-40,000 are hardened Brexiteers, a good many of them today being defectors from UKIP. However, they have a lock on most associations and are able to threaten MPs with deselection. Party members also, of course, get a final say on the next leader and have always chosen the most Eurosceptic. So the entire Tory Party, which got 13.6 million votes in 2017, is effectively controlled by 0.2% of its voters.
The same applies in Labour where Momentum and its roughly 200,000 supporters – many of them also until recently backers of other, even more left-wing parties – essentially controls the Labour Party and allows Jeremy Corbyn to run it, despite 75% of his MPs having declared they have no confidence on him. He is an inveterate anti-European and is resisting pressure from his members to join a more pro-EU stance. Labour voters, in contrast, are overwhelmingly pro-Remain. So in the case of Labour, around 1.5% of Labour voters are driving policy in a different direction from what most of the others desire.
In simple terms, the current party system means that around 250,000 voters are holding all of the rest of us to ransom. It’s the reason why Tory MPS are scared to call out the lies of the Leave campaign. It’s the reason Labour MPs can’t go into the lobbies to back the policies their voters are crying out for. It’s the reason why the 80 MPs of the ERG can control the other 570 members of Parliament.
It is wholly wrong – electorally, morally and strategically for the UK. That’s why Justine’s call for a People’s Vote is timely and, once we have taken back control of our country, we will then need to take a look at our whole political system. But that’s for another day. For now, let’s fight hard to get a People’s Vote. Say “no” to no say!