Will Political Recriminations Facilitate a People’s Vote on Brexit?

Two months ago an organisation called The People’s Vote was launched in Camden, North London, with the goal of securing a referendum on the terms of a ‘final Brexit deal‘. Whilst fanfare and media coverage at the time was minimal, the campaign is now beginning to gather momentum ahead of a public march for a People’s Vote on June 23rd that marks two years since the original in/out referendum on EU membership.

Groups participating in the march include Open Britain, Our Future Our Choice (OFOL), For Our Future’s Sake and Best for Britain.

Let’s briefly look at each one in turn.

Open Britain is a pro – EU organisation that exists to fight against the prospect of a ‘hard, destructive and potentially chaotic Brexit path the government has chosen.’ The two most prominent figures within Open Britain are Labour MP Chuka Umunna (who is attributed as being the political leader behind a People’s Vote) and author of Article 50 and member of the Trilateral Commission Lord John Kerr. They insist that the government cannot take Britain out of the EU under the scenario of a no deal. Instead, they believe the electorate are entitled to have their say on the final terms of a Brexit agreement.

Our Future Our Choice (OFOL) are also calling for parliament to grant the public a People’s Vote. If successful, the aim would then be to ‘persuade the electorate to reject the deal.’ OFOL are weighted in favour of young voters, and the group’s own manifesto proclaims that in the event of a hard Brexit, they will ‘knock down any and all of the barriers imposed between us and Europe.’ One of these ‘barriers‘ appears to be the older generation, for which the OFOL will ‘remind that there will be a time when our generation ages.’

For Our Future’s Sake (also geared towards the young) are ‘mobilising students and young people across the UK to demand a People’s Vote on the Brexit deal.’ They believe that should enough youth voters band together, they can ‘stop a decision that will damage the UK for generations.’

Lastly, we have Best for Britain. According to press coverage, this group has raised millions of pounds in donations, and is now being labeled a ‘Soros-backed Campaign‘ after billionaire George Soros donated £400,000 to the cause.

One important distinction exists between Best for Britain and The People’s Vote, in that Best for Britain are seeking to find a ‘democratic way to stop Brexit.’ Part of their mission statement reads as follows:

We will support a people’s vote to make the final decision on whether to accept the terms of Brexit or keep our current deal with the EU.

This position is reaffirmed elsewhere on the group’s website:

Join us to demand a final say on the Brexit deal and to make sure there’s an option to remain in the EU.

This runs contrary to what The People’s Vote are campaigning for. Communications emanating directly from the group only go as far as wanting a referendum on whether to accept or reject a prospective deal. Chuka Umunna and fellow Labour MP’s have long since said that their position is to accept and respect the result of the original referendum. The People’s Vote, therefore, are not specifically calling for the option of remaining inside the European Union.

This is something that Tom Holder, a Science communicator and supporter of the EU, picked up on in a blog post written for The Huffington Post:

  • The People’s Vote campaign has, at no point, declared its support for Remain being an option in any final deal referendum. Scour their website for such a statement – it does not exist.
  • We risk squandering the efforts of tens of thousands of people because the People’s Vote campaign made a demand so woolly that it could actually help the Brexit movement. Indeed this campaign might actually bolster the chances of a Hard Brexit.

Holder goes on to say that The People’s Votedoes not stand for remain but for a dangerous path towards a hard Brexit.’ It is because of this that Holder will not support the campaign unless they change their stance.

As well as demanding an option for the UK to remain in the EU, Best for Britain openly denounce how ‘older peoplewish for a return to ‘parochial nationalism‘. As with other campaigners for a People’s Vote, they want ‘young people to steer Britain into the future‘.

Leading financier George Soros has boasted that it was Best for Britain who helped convince MP’s to support a push for a ‘meaningful vote‘ in parliament on a deal. In the group’s ‘Roadmap to a People’s Vote‘, they advised that any such vote in the House of Commons would be ‘advisory‘, and that it would be up to the general public to make the final decision. It is an advisory meaningful vote which so called Tory rebels (led by Dominic Grieve) had recently been seeking to guarantee.

On first glance, then, Best for Britain appear to have more political and financial sway than their counterparts who are also pushing for a People’s Vote.

With all these organisations demanding a referendum, it is worth mentioning that in December 2017 both the Conservatives and Labour rejected a petition on Parliament’s e-petitions website calling for a second vote. The matter subsequently lay dormant until the launch of the People’s Vote campaign back in April. At present, the positions of both parties have not changed. Neither front bench is advocating a public vote on the terms of a Brexit deal.

At an Institute for Government event two months ago, Shadow Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, Keir Starmer, confirmed that Labour’s focus was on securing a meaningful vote for parliament. Starmer, who like Sir John Kerr is a member of the Trilateral Commission, went on the record as saying that Labour was not calling for a People’s Vote. Coincidence or otherwise, The People’s Vote campaign happened to be launched in Starmer’s constituency.

Returning to the campaign itself, whilst all the organisations involved want a vote on the final deal, the difference between them lies in how any such referendum would be framed.

Sir Alan Duncan, a minister of state at the Foreign Office, spoke recently about the possibility of holding a People’s Vote on a Brexit deal. But unlike Best for Britain, Sir Alan was of the belief that ‘the choice would be between the exit deal on offer or having no deal at all.’ The ballot paper would not, in Sir Alan’s view, offer voters the option of remaining part of the European Union.

So where might this be leading? The current prevarications stemming from Brexit are fashioning the narrative that parliament is being denied the ability to influence the withdrawal process towards a ‘softer‘ exit from the EU. This comes at the same time that the drive for a People’s Vote is gathering strength. Over the summer it is likely that the campaign will generate sufficient momentum for a public referendum on a deal to be debated in parliament – assuming an agreement is found between Brexit negotiators.

This week, an amendment on a ‘meaningful vote‘ for parliament was defeated for a second time in the House of Commons. Enough Conservative rebels agreed to a compromise of allowing the Speaker of the House to make a judgement on whether MP’s will be allowed to amend a motion if there is no deal on Brexit by January 21st 2019. Beforehand, the proposal (in the event of no agreement with the EU) was for the government to issue a statement to the House which would be cast ‘in neutral terms‘ – meaning MP’s would not have the power to direct the government’s next steps.

Importantly, the chance of dropping out of the EU with no deal remains possible following this latest failed amendment.

Labour are also divided on Brexit, with rebels of their own defying Jeremy Corbyn and Keir Starmer’s stance of rejecting continued membership of the European Economic Area (EEA) and the single market. Whilst they support a meaningful vote for parliament, Labour MP’s, party members and supporters of a People’s Vote continue to call for Corbyn to endorse a second referendum. Left wing organisation The National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts also want Corbyn to change tack and plan to team up with other anti Brexit campaigners throughout the summer. Another group, Left Against Brexit, are attempting to persuade Corbyn to reject leaving the European Union and make the case for remaining.

Should Labour’s position on a People’s Vote change, it would garner extensive support across the opposition benches and require the backing of only a dozen or so disgruntled Conservatives (who are increasingly embittered with their party’s stance on Brexit) to reach a place where a second referendum becomes a reality.

***

Two years ago the UK electorate were asked a simple question that could not be misconstrued – ‘Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?‘ The subsequent leave vote witnessed a sustained fall in the value of sterling, which was blamed for a rise in inflation and gave the Bank of England the opportunity to tighten monetary policy for the first time in over ten years.

A rejection of any prospective deal by the electorate would see a sharp devaluation of the pound and once again prompt the conditions for the BOE to carry on raising interest rates.

As I have reasoned in previous posts, Brexit provides the BOE with the necessary rationale to hike rates, at a time when the Federal Reserve have been gradually withdrawing stimulus measures introduced after Lehman Brothers’ collapse in 2008. Currently, the global trend towards removing support from the financial system is backstopped with warnings about how a rise in nationalism / protectionism throughout the Western hemisphere could jeopardise the ‘rules based global order.’ This is giving central banks sufficient cover to carry on tightening.

In the event of a People’s Vote, the question presented to voters on the ballot paper would be crucial in determining any possible outcomes. It is highly doubtful (though not impossible) that parliament would vote to support a referendum that gave people the option of remaining inside the EU. If that proved the case, it would come down to a straight choice between accepting or rejecting a deal. Exactly what ‘The People’s Vote‘ are calling for.

It is too early at this stage to predict when such a vote could happen. A deal between the UK and the EU must be cobbled together first. But the latest developments on a ‘meaningful vote‘ for parliament have opened up the avenue for the People’s Vote campaign to gain in prominence.

Division between leave and remain voters has been fermenting since 2016. If a no deal scenario originates (as I believe it will), it would make sense from the establishment’s perspective to throw the whole issue back over to the public and allow them to direct a new phase of chaos in the Brexit process.

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