Why the turmoil over at the People’s Vote campaign, where two senior personnel have been fired?
The answer lies in the three main structural weaknesses present in the campaign from its very start – as it emerged from Britain Stronger in Europe, the losing Remain referendum campaign.
The first is forward-facing. Why should a second plebiscite on UK EU membership settle the matter one way or the other? What happens if a vote goes, say, 51-49 either way? Must we then have a third referendum for clarity? Best of five?
The second looks backwards. Officially, the People’s Vote campaign is aligned neither to Leave nor Remain supporters. Unofficially, the very dogs in the street know that it is made up almost entirely of Remainers. They want to re-contest a referendum they lost. It is as though New Zealand were demanding a re-run of Saturday’s World Cup semi-final.
The third springs from the second. The campaign has failed to attract the support of a single Leaver of any real note. Indeed, its most visible spokesman has been Tony Blair. It is as if the campaign had become a vehicle to help him redeem his reputation and popularity, lost after the Iraq War.
And all that comes before asking the People’s Vote crew the knotty questions that they can’t answer, such as: what’s the question? Or: what’s the franchise?
The success of Keir Starmer and London Labour in pushing the cause within their party, and wringing concessions over time from Jeremy Corbyn, has helped to mask these fundamental difficulties. But the problems with the campaign have been evident for a while. Its backers in the Commons haven’t dared bring it back for recent vote.
In April, it fell by 280 votes to 292 in an indicative vote. But that figure is flattering to the People’s Vote campaigners: the Conservative front bench abstained. So there are many more MPs hostile to the project in Parliament.
And now there is a new obstacle to the second referendum cause. It might reasonably be expected to fill a Parliamentary vacuum, especially in the event of a three month extension (which now seems likely to be given). But that gap is being filled by Boris Johnson’s new deal – and the Withdrawal Agreement Bill based on it that gained Second Reading last week.
Increasingly, public opinion has polarised. One is either for Brexit, and prepared ultimately to embrace No Deal; or against it, in which case one looks to Revoke. There is thus a logic to the Liberal Democrats’ “bollocks to Brexit” campaign: they know their target audience.
Indeed, the joint LibDem / SNP push for an election shows both parties giving up on a second referendum, for which there’s no Commons majority, and going for a general election, for which there might be.
Johnson must now decide how to respond. But either way, the prospect of a People’s Vote has receded.