A month ago I posted an article exploring the make-up of the Trilateral Commission whilst outlining the internationalist perspective of former and current members of the institution. This followed on from a series of articles published last year which looked at Brexit, Article 50 and Lord Kerr (the man credited as the author of the clause).
In relation to the campaign for a people’s vote on a final Brexit deal, we are now going to examine the statements of Lord Kerr, Keir Starmer and David Miliband that have been made over the past nine months. Currently, all three are members of the Trilateral Commission.
Let’s begin with the Labour party’s Brexit Secretary Sir Keir Starmer.
Sir Keir Starmer
Starmer’s name first appeared on the membership list of the Trilateral Commission in April this year. Out of 650 MP’s, he was the only one invited to become a member.
In terms of Brexit, Starmer’s position can best be described as non-committal.
Three months ago, he spoke at an Institute for Government conference on the UK’s exit – three days after the official campaign for a People’s Vote was launched in his constituency in London.
Asked if he was supporting a People’s Vote on the terms of a deal, Starmer said:
- Parliament will decide the next phase if a deal is voted down, not the Prime Minister.
- We’re not calling for a people’s vote. We’re focused on a meaningful vote for parliament.
A few weeks later, and prior to the EU Withdrawal Bill clearing parliament and becoming law, he confirmed that Labour would not back keeping the UK in the single market through membership of the European Economic Area – a decision that disappointed those advocating for a People’s Vote. Instead, Starmer wanted ‘full access‘ to the single market but stopped short of calling for full membership.
Party leader Jeremy Corbyn reinforced Starmer’s standpoint and rejected calls for the UK to remain a member of the single market. Incidentally, the amendment to the Withdrawal bill put forward by Labour for a new form of single market was tabled in Corbyn’s name, and was widely perceived as being dead on arrival due to the fact that Conservative MP’s were not going to support an amendment endorsed by the leader of the opposition.
A day before parliament voted on a series of House of Lord’s amendments to the Withdrawal bill, Starmer wrote an op-ed for The Guardian urging parliament to back the amendments to the bill and ‘take no deal off the table once and for all‘. Starmer’s plea failed. The majority of the amendments were not carried and no deal remains a possible outcome to the Brexit process.
The I later questioned Starmer on the idea of a People’s Vote, for which he said Labour had ‘neither called for nor ruled out‘ (a departure from what he said at the Institute for Government). But he was of the view that the prospect was unlikely:
- If you are giving people a vote again before we leave – that means between Christmas and March. That seems difficult.
Trilateralist rhetoric over the decades has been to decry the concept of nationalism and sovereignty, and to push instead for a rules based ‘international order‘ in which sovereignty is gradually watered down and ‘shared‘ between nations. The threat of a breakdown of the post World War Two ‘order‘ is something which Zbigniew Brzezinski, a founding member of the Trilateral Commission, dedicated many of his communications too.
It is perhaps no surprise then that Sir Keir took the opportunity to warn of the rise in right-wing fascism during a visit to Brussels at the end of June, using Brexit as an example:
- There is now a real danger that this continued deadlock will fuel public anxiety and alienation.
- Progressives and socialists across Europe should all be concerned about this. It mirrors the rise of right-wing and authoritarian parties across the western world.
A couple of weeks after a march for a People’s Vote in London (which Starmer was absent from), Starmer attended a private meeting of the Labour Business Group. Here, he reiterated his view on a second referendum:
- It (Parliament) should have to power to decide options, and this might involve a general election or a ‘People’s Vote’. We’re not calling for it. We respect the result of the first referendum. But we’re not ruling out a second referendum.
This was presented in the media as Starmer ‘defying‘ Jeremy Corbyn’s consistent position of having neither proposed nor supported the campaign for a People’s Vote. ‘We’re not supporting a second referendum‘ was Corbyn’s unequivocal response when asked recently by Sophie Ridge of Sky News. A ‘meaningful vote‘ for parliament with an ‘amendable motion‘ remains Labour’s objective. For now.
However, in an appearance by Starmer on The Andrew Marr show on July the 8th, he stated that if a deal on Brexit is voted down by MP’s, ‘parliament must decide what happens next‘.
The narrative of political deadlock runs through Starmer’s commentary. By saying that parliament should decide the next course of action if a deal is dismissed or no deal is agreed, this automatically equates to not ruling out a second referendum. Right now, Starmer is neither one way or the other on a People’s Vote.
Once Labour’s Foreign Secretary under Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Miliband is now President of the New York based International Rescue Committee Charity and has been a member of the Trilateral Commission for at least the past few years.
Miliband weighed in on the subject of Brexit whist sharing a platform with former deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and Conservative back bencher Nicky Morgan two months ago:
- The prospects of a hard Brexit are very high now and the prospect of no deal is rising too. It does not need to be like this. It is very, very important that the country is not held to the kind of ransom that at the moment threatens living standards as well as the political influence of the UK.
Miliband used the media coverage generated by his intervention to quell any suggestion that he was calling for a new, centrist political movement (along the lines of Emmanuel Macron and En Marche! in France).
He surfaced again a couple of weeks later at the Hay Festival in Wales, and this time made clear his absolute support for a second referendum:
- If you’re really sick of Brexit, you need to get shot of Brexit.
- If there is a referendum, my goodness it needs to have everyone campaigning. I tried to campaign last time. I hope I’d campaign more effectively next time.
Miliband’s position is in keeping with former Prime Minister Tony Blair, who Miliband served under in various cabinet roles from 2002 to 2007. Addressing Chatham House two weeks ago, Blair went on the record as saying ‘the people must make the final decision‘ on Brexit and that ‘parliament must assert itself because neither government nor opposition can or will.’
Finally, we turn to the man who authored Article 50. In November 2017, months before the People’s Vote campaign was set up, Lord Kerr gave a speech on behalf of Open Britain and later held a press conference alongside Labour MP Chuka Umunna (also a member of Open Britain).
Umunna is widely seen as the leading political champion for a People’s Vote. Whilst not a member of the Trilateral Commission, he is part of the European Council on Foreign Relations. The ECFR holds several members of the Commission, one of whom is David Miliband.
A portion of Kerr’s speech was dedicated to talk of a second referendum on Brexit:
- The country still has a free choice about whether to proceed. I do not see any of 27 democracies denying us the chance to consult the people. They would think we had every right to check that the country, by then aware of the facts, still wanted to leave.
- While still in, the option of stopping the clock, in order to consult the people again, is available.
More recently, Kerr has spoken of how parliament would have the right to direct the legislative process in an effort to stop Brexit from happening:
- The commons could decide that it isn’t what the people were told to expect and so the people should be asked: ‘Are you prepared to settle for this? Is it OK, or shall we stay?’
Kerr insists that the government could at any time rescind Article 50 and remain members of the European Union on current terms. But this is at variants with the European Commission, who last year declared that it cannot be unilaterally reversed. From their perspective, a notification of withdrawal is ‘a point of no return‘, and the UK does not have the authority to repeal Article 50 without the consent of all other EU nations.
Kerr appears intermittently on British media, most often on LBC radio. Speaking to presenter Shelagh Fogarty in June, Kerr again raised the prospect of another referendum:
For me, the meaningful vote is about taking the deal or no deal to parliament at a moment when parliament could say ‘go back and fix it’, or put it to the people.
One aspect that the media never raise with Kerr, Starmer and Miliband is their relationship to the Trilateral Commission. Of interest, a list of Lord Kerr’s positions in public life are detailed on the parliament.uk website. His membership on the Executive Committee at the Commission is recorded under ‘Register of Interests‘ as a ‘Non-Financial Interest‘.
As for Starmer, his role at the Commission is not mentioned on his parliamentary page.
What these gentleman’s communications tell us is that initial soundings for a second referendum were made by a leading member of the Trilateral Commission – Lord Kerr – months before the official campaign for a People’s Vote began. Kerr continues to support the cause as a supposed way out from the Brexit process. Kerr’s voice is given authority due to Article 50, but what is sadly never discussed is why the clause was left open ended in terms of irrevocabilty, meaning it does not explicitly state that the process can be stopped unilaterally or multilaterally.
When discussing Brexit bills through the House of Commons, Kerr who told LBC host Matt Frei in May:
- We know that if we left the European Union with no bill of this kind on the statute books, we’d been in a complete legal mess.
- There’d be a vacuum, nobody would know what the law of the land is.
The same argument can be levelled at Kerr for not conceiving a piece of legislation that was definitive from a legal perspective.
Returning to a People’s Vote, there is now a very clear movement building towards a second referendum. Keir Starmer, and now deputy leader of Labour Tom Watson, say it cannot be ruled out, which is in contrast to their leader Jeremy Corbyn. Attempts are underway to change the official position of the Labour party into publicly supporting a second vote at September’s party conference. Only last week the Unite union declared it was ‘open to the possibility of a popular vote being held on any deal, depending on political circumstances.’
Those circumstances relate to the political deadlock Keir Starmer speaks about. As this becomes more profound, the People’s Vote campaign gains momentum. Their next major event takes place on October the 20th – the ‘People’s Vote March for the Future.’ The People’s Vote freely admit that this march has been ‘timed to coincide with key votes in the House of Commons this autumn.’
Gradually, a convergence is emerging on the issue. Two of the three Trilateral members covered here already endorse a People’s Vote. The other, Keir Starmer, is in a holding pattern. If Labour’s position on a second referendum changes, so will Starmer’s. Under those circumstances, a People’s Vote would then have Trilateral support amongst the three.
A separate story entirely, however, is whether a vote would prove a vehicle for preventing the UK’s exit from the European Union or increase the prospect of Britain leaving the EU with no deal. As events unfold, this is a subject that we will be exploring in more detail.