by Frank Schnittger
Sat Jan 12th, 2019 at 12:12:10 AM EST
Over two and a half years after the referendum Theresa May has finally decided to reach across the aisle and try to build a national consensus around her Brexit deal. She has begun talking to Labour MPs who have been saying for months they might support her deal provided they receive assurances on workers rights and permanent access to a customs union. She has even spoken to a couple of leading trade unionists she has never bothered to meet in all of her political career. Downing Street had to call the Union call centre to get the General Secretary's contact details...
It is a last desperate maneuver, undertaken only because the DUP has rejected her latest attempts to get them on board. With the DUP it is always a case of "what part of NO do you not understand?" It is the end-game of her strategy, first announced in her Lancaster house "red lines" speech, to secure a parliamentary majority by appeasing her the hard core right wing Tory Brexiteers and the DUP - all the while claiming to be uniting the nation around her.
She is also beginning to lose control of the whole Brexit process with an increasingly assertive parliament demanding that she announce her Plan B within three days of losing the vote on her Brexit deal next week. Tories are incensed that Speaker John Bercow allowed amendments tying the hands of the government. But what do you expect when you don't have a written constitution and precedents are there to be set? His job is to assert parliamentary sovereignty, not protect the government.
So what are her options for a Plan B?
- Ask the EU to renegotiate the deal. What part of NO does she not understand?
- Play for time, and make concessions on other matters in the hope that sufficient opposition MPs will be spooked by a no deal Brexit to vote for her deal as the 29th. March approaches.
- Ask the House of Commons to vote on a no deal Brexit - in order to demonstrate that her deal is more popular than No deal - in the House of Commons at least. That might take the sting out of a heavy defeat for her deal, but will it help to bring it across the line? Hardly.
- Resign, and make way for a Brexiteer who will pursue a no deal Brexit. She looked very tired in her presser with Shinzō Abe.
- Negotiate with Corbyn to agree a second referendum. He won't agree unless he has failed to win a vote of no confidence in her government first, and even then they might not be able to agree on the options/wording to be presented to the electorate.
The great danger, from May's point of view, is that she loses the initiative and control of the process altogether. Corbyn's first option has to be to press for a general election. He could offer Tory Remainers a second referendum in exchange for their support in a vote of confidence.
It would be ironic if it were Tory Remainers who finally brought down the Tory government, as it has been the DUP and ERG who have been threatening May's leadership all along. Somehow it always seems ok for the hard right to threaten disloyalty while moderates have to play by the rules.
But do the moderates have the balls? They could expect to be pilloried by the media and assaulted in the street. It's ok to threaten violence if you are right wing.
More likely, Tory Remainers might threaten to support a Labour motion of no confidence unless May gave them a second referendum. She might insist that her deal is one of the options presented. Hard core Brexiteers would insist that a no deal Brexit is another, while Remainers would insist Remain is an option.
Could the electorate cope with the complexity of a three option referendum? Would the electorate be asked to tick just one box, or to enumerate the options 1,2,3 in order of their choice with the least popular option eliminated and those votes redistributed based on the second choice listed on those ballot papers?
On balance, it still seems a second referendum is unlikely to happen, although the probability of it happening could rise substantially if/when May's deal is decisively rejected. If the House of Commons rejects her deal, and also a no deal Brexit, what is the alternative?