For a long time, I have advocated holding a referendum on the Withdrawal Agreement Theresa May brings back from negotiations with the European Union. The people started this process in 2016 and should be able to sign off on the deal at the end. The Withdrawal Agreement has been published in its full 585 pages and it is now parliament’s job to ratify it.
There’s only one problem – May faces a parliamentary deadlock.
Both main parties have been opposed to holding a People’s Vote until recently. The Labour Party has shifted its stance following this year’s conference, where it was agreed that if the Party cannot secure a General Election, it will campaign for another referendum. The Prime Minister has held firm to her view since her leadership campaign that there will be no second referendum. She has slowly, however, shifted her position slightly.
Theresa May originally argued that a no-deal Brexit is better than a bad deal. Shortly after the withdrawal agreement was published, May repeatedly stated that if her deal is voted down, it would risk a no-deal Brexit, or no Brexit at all.
The PM has now made it public that Brexit may not happen at all if parliament vote down her deal, and last Wednesday the Work and Pensions Secretary gave hope to those opposed to Brexit. After only just re-entering the Cabinet, Amber Rudd expressed that there is no majority in the House of Commons for a no-deal Brexit, so if the deal is voted down only one option remains: remaining in the European Union.
Rudd is likely correct in her assertion that there is no parliamentary majority for no-deal. However, there also appears to be no majority for May’s deal either.
A breakdown of MP’s Brexit positions, courtesy of Election Maps UK on Twitter, suggests that Parliament is deadlocked. There is no majority for any one option.
Although the numbers will inevitably vary when it comes to the crunch moment of the vote, 185 MPs have been identified as backing May’s deal. Only 117 MPs appear to back a hard Brexit/no-deal. 120 MPs have publicly backed a People’s Vote, 59 MPs back a soft Brexit and 158 MPs back Labour’s policy. Finally, 11 MPs will abstain (1 Speaker, 3 Deputy Speakers and 7 Sinn Féin MPs).
If, as anticipated, parliament votes down May’s deal, a no-deal Brexit will not be approved by the House of Commons. The only feasible option the PM then has left on the table is no Brexit. As a staunch Europhile, I would like the UK to remain a member of the EU, but it would not be right for Parliament alone to stop Brexit and keep the UK a member of the EU. It should be the people who stop Brexit via a referendum, as they started it with one. Stopping Brexit without seeking a mandate from the electorate would be unjust. If the people want to stop Brexit, they should be allowed to do so.
Although there is currently no majority for a People’s Vote, if May’s deal is rejected many MPs may feel the only way forward is to hold another referendum. Furthermore, if the Prime Minister also shifts government position to back a People’s Vote after her deal is shot down, Labour would have to back it and many government members would probably fall in line. This would attract the support of the Green’s Caroline Lucas, 11 Liberal Democrat MPs and the SNP, which would probably produce a majority for another referendum.
Alternatively, May could stick to her guns and rely on the support of businesses, as she already has done this week with the CBI. If her Withdrawal Agreement is voted down, she could bring it back to the Commons a short while later, after businesses have faced huge uncertainty and the pound has taken a hit. With the support of businesses backing her deal to prevent a no-deal Brexit, she could win over the hard Brexiteers in her party. This could be reminiscent of the Congressional bailout in the US of 2008, where the House rejected the government’s bailout plan, only for it to return to the drawing board and pass Congress after businesses reacted negatively.
Ultimately, it is likely that the people will have to be consulted again if parliament reject the withdrawal agreement, as MPs would not back a no-deal Brexit, leaving only the option to hold another referendum. It would not be right for parliament to stop Brexit unilaterally.