- Campaigners for a new Brexit referendum insist that their long-term strategy is still on track.
- Anti-Brexit MPs were deflated this week after the House of Commons rejected amendments to potentially delay Brexit and consider alternatives to Theresa May’s deal.
- However, People’s Vote campaign insiders say that the “crunch point” is weeks away.
- They expect a parliamentary majority for a new referendum to emerge further down the line once May’s deal is voted down again and all other options exhausted.
- But pro-referendum Labour MPs are worried that Jeremy Corbyn is about to back May’s deal.
LONDON – The defeat this week of a series of amendments designed to potentially delay Brexit has led some commentators to suggest that the anti-Brexit campaign for a second referendum is now dead.
However, campaigners for a People’s Votes still believe that the “crunch point” for forcing a new referendum still lies ahead, with the “remorseless logic” of the Brexit process still pointing towards another public vote.
MPs and activists who support the People’s Vote campaign for a new referendum were deflated this week after MPs rejected amendments designed to delay Brexit and allow discussions of alternatives to Theresa May’s deal.
Some MPs were also disappointed that the campaign didn’t push for an amendment to be tabled in its name.
“You’ve got to have a grassroots push at every chance,” an MP who backs the campaign told Business Insider this week. “We can’t be put off by being knocked back. That way, it stays in the mix as an option.”
However, despite those setbacks and a glum feeling among anti-Brexit MPs in the hours that followed, sources inside the People’s Vote campaign are insistent that its long-term strategy has not been derailed.
The “last man standing” logic
“The crunch point has to come when all options have been exhausted,” a senior People’s Vote figure told BI this week, adding: “We are not jostling for position with Norway, May’s deal or Labour’s plan.
“We are not one of the Brexit options. We are the solution.”
The prime minister has put off a new Commons vote on her deal after deciding to push for legal changes to the controversial Northern Ireland “backstop,” which is designed to prevent a hard border with Ireland after Brexit.
Campaign figures believe that the most likely route to a new referendum remains May’s deal being rejected for a second time next month after the prime minister’s renegotiation attempts inevitably fail.
Parliament will again be at an impasse, and with time running out to avert no-deal, a referendum on whether to leave the EU at all will inevitably become the only remaining option capable of breaking it, campaigners believe.
Right now the numbers in Parliament don’t look good for the People’s Vote campaign. Senior insiders said this week that if a free vote was to take place today, around 200 of 650 MPs would support a referendum.
However, both campaigners and pro-People’s Vote MPs say that this number would be grow significantly if there were no other viable means of avoiding leaving the EU without a Withdrawal Agreement.
A Labour MP told BI this week: “With or without the whip, there are many Labour MPs who would rather have another referendum than no-deal. That applies to the shadow frontbench and frontbench too.”
Campaign insiders call this the “low road” to a People’s Vote. This is the belief that hundreds of MPs who don’t currently support a referendum will eventually “soberly, reluctantly” conclude that it is the only way to solve Brexit.
“She [the prime minister] is trying to do what we are doing. She is trying to be the last one standing,” a senior People’s Vote insider told BI this week after Tuesday’s Brexit votes.
There’s probably more chance of getting her [May] to back a People’s Vote than Corbyn right now.
Another Labour MP who supports the official campaign said that while they were deflated by this week’s events, they also believed that the long-term, “last man standing” strategy of the pro-referendum movement had not been derailed.
The House of Commons is set to hold another round of votes on amendments on Thursday, February 14 if the prime minister has not been able to secure parliamentary approval for her deal by then.
The senior MP predicted that by that date, May will have returned from Brussels with either nothing to show critical Conservative and Democratic Unionist Party MPs or changes that fall well short of their demands.
“On the 14th we’ll probably end up with either with a prime minister’s statement with a letter of assurance from the EU or a question of what is Parliament going to do in response to yet more impasse,” they said.
“I suspect we will still be in a position where the antidote to the government’s impasse on the 14th will be a more structured period of time for the Commons to make decisions.”
Labour MPs fear Corbyn is close to backing a Brexit deal
There was growing anxiety among pro-People’s Vote Labour MPs this week that their leader Jeremy Corbyn is close to throwing his support behind a revised version of May’s deal with the EU.
Corbyn and his closest advisors met with May and government figures this week to discuss what the prime minister could do to win Labour’s support, primarily Labour policy of a permanent customs union.
The government is also trying to lure Labour MPs with promises to maintain EU-levels of workers’ rights after Brexit and cash injections for Leave-voting constituencies in deprived regions on the country.
“There’s a real foreboding sense of Corbyn wanting to deliver a compromise Brexit at some point in the next few weeks,” one Labour MP and former shadow minister told BI.
They added: “And MPs who aren’t the usual suspects are saying in WhatsApp groups that the backlash to supporting a People’s Vote will be nothing compared to that of facilitating a Tory Brexit.
“There’s probably more chance of getting her [May] to back a People’s Vote than Corbyn right now.”
Labour’s official policy is to consider supporting a public vote if their preferred outcomes of an early general election or forcing May into accepting Labour’s alternative Brexit plan cannot be achieved.
However, Corbyn’s office is reluctant to back a referendum and would rather deliver a revised Brexit deal.
The Labour leadership claims to have conducted polling which shows that there is little appetite for a new referendum among the voters that Labour must attract in order to win a majority at the next election, BI reported.
“I could see a scenario where May comes back with a slightly softer deal and we say ‘well that is the best we can do’.” a senior aide to Corbyn told BI before Christmas.
“That nearly meets our objectives’ and then we will try to renegotiate in office. I can see a scenario where that happens.”