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Why Revoke is now very much on the table

May 18th, 2019

May’s departure and a flight to the extremes aids stopping Brexit

A zombie government will bring a zombie Withdrawal Agreement back to parliament next month, and in true zombie style, it will get bashed and still not really die. Ever since the first Meaningful Vote in January, when the government lost by well over 200 votes, Theresa May has been locked in a political vice where she couldn’t countenance No Deal, couldn’t accept No Brexit but couldn’t deliver any Brexit deal either – yet one of those three outcomes must ultimately conclude this phase of the process.

First things first. As predicted, the Con-Lab Brexit talks had long since run their course and in the face of haemorrhaging support from the electorate, neither party was going to be willing to concede the necessary ground to enable a deal to be struck. The European Parliament elections next week will no doubt drive home this new reality much further, and the Peterborough by-election after that.

In truth, those conclusions – that the Tories should take a firmer line and that Labour should be more actively Remain – might well be wrong. Certainly, some voters are strongly exercised by Brexit but many are simply fed up with two divided parties who either can’t decide on what their policy is or can’t deliver it once they do decide. In the absence of competence, voters are looking for certainty and that’s unsurprisingly to be found at the extremes: No Deal , and Revoke.

Where Jeremy Corbyn was right was in stating that the government’s authority is draining by the day and that even if a deal had been done, it was highly unlikely to be one that the PM could carry her party on. Naturally, he didn’t say the same for himself but despite his stronger internal party position, he could well have done.

All this doesn’t necessarily mean that May will lose her Withdrawal Agreement Implementation Bill at the second reading. There are sound tactical grounds for letting it through at that stage, not least that the easiest way to deliver a confirmatory referendum is to attach one to that Bill’s enactment.

However, chances are that Labour will vote it down, as they’ve voted down the Withdrawal Agreement before. What then? Well, first there’ll be a Tory leadership contest and a change of prime minister in the summer: probably in early September, possibly in late July if the timetable can be shortened to that extent. Simultaneously, we’re very likely to see a parallel contest for the Lib Dem leadership. As a result, both parties’ policies will likely tilt towards their members’ views.

Following on, there’ll be the party conferences. For the Tories and Lib Dems, these will simply be echoes of their internal summer elections, albeit that they might force commitments or set policy.

More important will be Labour’s conference. Corbyn has so far stuck rigidly to the last conference composite which set as the party’s first priority to seek a general election – which has enabled him to avoid doing anything to set a clear Labour policy but has allowed Labour to frustrate the government in delivering anything either. That position cannot hold. With only a month to the current Brexit deadline, a general election would be of no use. The conference could try to endorse some kind of Cooper 2 procedure but Cooper 1 only worked because the EU was willing to play ball, because the PM felt obliged to ask for the extension anyway, and because the numbers added up in parliament. None of those can be guaranteed to fall into place a second time.

Instead, when faced with the very real possibility that the new Tory PM will make demands of Brussels that Brussels will not accept and that given that, a Cooper 2 might fail to deliver its objective even if it could be rammed through parliament against the government’s wishes, as Cooper 1 was, Labour might have to turn to the nuclear option of Revoke – the only means within the UK’s control of stopping (or pausing) Brexit. And of course, we know that the great majority of Labour members, MPs and voters believe that Brexit is a mistake. There has to be a good chance that a Revoke motion could carry against the leadership’s wishes.

Could Remainers in the Commons carry off the same trick it did before, grab control of the timetable and push a Bill through parliament? The advantage to this procedure – as opposed to trying to insert a referendum into the Implementation Bill – is that it’s simple. A Revocation Act might only need one meaningful clause whereas, for comparison, the 2015 Act that authorised the first referendum ran to well over a hundred sections, if you include those within the Schedules. Similarly, it’s far easier and quicker to implement.

But is there a majority for Revoke? In isolation, almost certainly not. The question, however, would be whether there’s a majority for Revoke when the near-assured alternative is No Deal. In that scenario, there might well be.

We could ask at that point what would happen after that but there we enter a whole new discussion deserving of its own article. As far as this one goes, I’ll simply note that the Betfair odds on Brexit not taking place before 2022 are 3.25, which is probably now a little generous (there are of course other routes to No Brexit before 2022 beyond the one laid out above).

As always, pushing for your own radical outcome both legitimises your opponents pushing for their own radical, opposite one – something they might well not have felt able to do without that legitimisation – and also makes them believe that there’s an imperative to push for it, to forestall the original initiative. When the stakes are so high, pressure so great and time so short, Revoke will undoubtedly move more and more into view as a very real possibility.

David Herdson