We pointed out in July that the Government-backed EU referendum bill took six months to pass through Parliament. No wonder – with the question, the franchise, spending rules, voting areas, regional counts and purdah to consider.
Even if this Government backed a second referendum – which it doesn’t – time for a second referendum is running out, we added. And there is now less sand left in the glass, two months on.
The People’s Vote campaign implicitly acknowleges this today, as it advances scenarios for such a poll. Lord “Britain will Come to Heel” Kerr, who presents its report, concedes that a new referendum faces “a high bar”. In doing so, he hints that it would be impossible, given the time constraint, for 16-year olds and EU nationals to be given the opportunity to vote.
Indeed, it is very hard to see from the report’s options how a poll would be possible at all. For example, it suggests using a Commons motion when MPs vote on a Brexit deal that the Government has negotiated. But a motion is not a Bill setting out the necessary legal requirements.
There would be time were the Government to seek to postpone the date of Brexit, and then to move such a Bill itself. But it would surely fall were it to attempt this, and a general election would then be almost inevitable. Nor would the Government be likely to survive moves by the legislature to seize the executive’s steering wheel.
And we haven’t even begun to explore yet what the question in such a poll would be.
None the less, Labour has the opportunity to execute a risky manoeuvre at its conference next week. It could pledge to seek a referendum in the event of No Deal – on No Deal or Staying In. It would propose both to honour the due date of Brexit and to push for such a referendum if No Deal happens, knowing full well that the timetable makes this combination almost impossible.
You don’t need me to tell you that such a commitment would be nonsense. That would be the whole point of it – to hint to the mass of pro-Remain Labour activists in London, now the party’s real heartland, that Jeremy Corbyn was moving their way…without him actually committing to anything deliverable.
So why might Labour not commit to a referendum on any agreement the Government strikes? Because it thinks there’s a good chance of the Commons voting such a deal down, that’s why. Which could pave the way for a general election and a Corbyn government. So why not commit Labour to voting against No Deal, too? Because that would be deliverable, and scare off pro-Brexit voters in Labour seats.
Essentially, the leadership’s calculation would be that the prospect of No Deal will strike such terror into the mass of voters that they would not react in a hostile way to a Labour referendum pledge, even in those pro-Brexit Labour constituencies.
And were there to be a general election in the wake of any of these events, Labour could bung a renegotiation pledge in its manifesto, and hint at a referendum on any agreement that such talks produced without actually pledging one. Job done.