The EU Referendum Bill had its First Reading on May 28, 2015, and gained Royal Assent on December 17, 2015. So it took more than six months to pass through Parliament. No wonder. There was much to debate. The question. The franchise. Spending rules – for the political parties, individuals and campaign groups. Voting areas. Regional counts. And, not least, purdah. Steve Baker took charge of Conservatives for Britain’s successful drive to ensure that David Cameron’s Government didn’t change the rules that govern it.
None the less, it is important to add that Cameron did indeed deliver the Bill that the Tory 2015 general election manifesto had promised, off the back of a small majority of 12.
These facts explain why a second referendum is now almost impossible to deliver before the date on which Brexit is due to take place, March 29 next year.
The question, the franchise, spending rules, voting areas, regional counts, purdah – all these would be no less easy to navigate during the next six months or so than they were in 2015. Indeed, getting a Bill through Parliament would be even harder in some ways. Justine Greening is suggesting a three-part question. Scrutiny of the referendum’s status (would it be advisory? would it deliver a mandate?) would be fiercer this time round. And, unlike David Cameron, Theresa May has no majority in the Commons at all.
Furthermore, of course, she has no mandate for a second referendum – on any deal she strikes with the EU, or on anything else. Any serious attempt by her to seek one would surely spark a confidence ballot.
Additionally, a second referendum would split Labour between its Remain-backing London base, and the Leave-voting seats of urban Britain, many of whose voters would regard it as illegitimate. No wonder Jeremy Corbyn is opposed.
The people pushing a second referendum, under the less voter-repellant guise of a “people’s vote” (who do they think decided the last one?), are intelligent, and know all this as well as us, if not better. So what’s their game?
We suspect they have a twin objective. The less important part of it is to delegitimise the referendum result by claiming that the Leave campaign was more dishonest than was Remain; and to suggest that the former outspent the latter, thus buying the result for Brexit. On the first charge, this pro-Leave site will give Remain the £350 million and Turkish immigration if you give us George Osborne’s emergency budget that never happened, his forecast of an immediate recession and 500,000 unemployed, and an 18 per cent fall in the value of house prices.
And there’s no proof that greater spending gets results anyway. May outspent Corbyn last summer, for example. A fat lot of good it did her.
The other half of the Remainers’ aim is more concerned with the future than rewriting history. It is to move public opinion against the referendum result, thereby justifying attempts to delay the application of Article 50 – in other words, to kick Brexit into the long grass, in defiance of the biggest mandate in Britain’s electoral history, thus ensuring that it’s never seen again. It is possible to imagine that the Government or Parliament or both will seek to do this in the event of No Deal, which is why Brexiteers will need to keep their wits about them during the run-up to March 29 next year.
But they would not do so, please note, because of a second referendum. And any attempt to do so would – we return to where we were – probably bring down the Government.
That, in turn, would probably force a general election. This could conceivably give a new Government a mandate for postponing Article 50, or for a referendum on postponement, or both.
Why, though, would Theresa May or Jeremy Corbyn promise such a referendum as part of their manifesto commitments? It would divide both their parties. And both leaders would be haunted by the recent example of David Cameron: in other words, by the terrible precedent for gambling on a referendum and losing. The most that could be expected would be vague manifesto reference to the possibility of a future plebiscite on some future deal with the EU. That might be a very long way away.
No, the campaign for a second referendum isn’t really a campaign for a second referendum. It’s a campaign for stopping Brexit.
That’s a perfectly legitimate objective. It could even happen. But Open Britain and Britain for Europe and the European Movement and so on ought to admit to their real aim – namely, to do so without a second referendum being held at all.