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19 April 2018

The Economist: Could Britain stand another vote on Brexit?

It is Parliament, not a fresh referendum, that is most likely to derail Britain’s exit from the European Union, in the view of The Economist.

[...]Yet the call for a vote on the final Brexit deal is fraught with problems. Mark Malloch Brown, a former Labour minister who chairs Best for Britain, a pro-EU lobby group, admits it is “a long shot”. Polls may find support for a vote, but there is little sign of a big shift of public opinion against Brexit. There is no parliamentary majority for a new vote. Labour’s Brexit spokesman, Sir Keir Starmer, confirms that the party does not support one. And as June 2016 showed, referendums are too binary. Rejecting a Brexit deal might mean more uncertainty, not reverting to membership.

The place that is having a vote—many of them, in fact—is Parliament. This week the Lords inflicted a heavy defeat on the government by amending the EU withdrawal bill to ask it to negotiate a customs union with the EU. Other amendments likely to pass make it illegal to build infrastructure on the Irish border and bolster a clause giving Parliament a “meaningful” vote on the Brexit deal. More Brexit-related legislation lies ahead, including on trade, customs and immigration.

Because Theresa May’s government lacks a majority in both the Commons and the Lords, it is vulnerable to further defeats. It is fending them off with three arguments. One is to claim that amendments to its legislation are intended only to sabotage Brexit. A second is to insist that, if it loses a vote on the Brexit deal, that will be an instruction to leave with no deal at all. And the third is to tell potential Tory rebels that this and many other votes will in reality be ones of confidence: if any are lost, an election could follow that brings Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn to power.

Yet these arguments are not convincing. Many amendments are aimed at softening Brexit, not stopping it. As a new report from the Institute for Government, a think-tank, explains, voting down the Brexit deal need not mean leaving with no deal. Other outcomes are possible: new negotiations, a change in Britain’s red lines, a decision to reverse Brexit. And the Fixed-term Parliaments Act of 2011 makes it hard to label any vote, even on Brexit, a confidence matter. Mrs May might resign, triggering a Tory leadership contest. But an early election can be called only via a confidence vote or by a two-thirds majority in Parliament.

The biggest obstacle to a People’s Vote is the timetable. The government has delayed much Brexit legislation to avoid defeats. The Brexit deal is due to be agreed by October, but as trade talks have only just begun, a slippage to December is likely. And details of the future relationship may still be vague, to be firmed up during a transition period to December 2020. Dominic Grieve, a Tory MP who favours a People’s Vote, says the EU would extend next March’s Brexit deadline if need be. But the risk of accidentally crashing out without a deal will rise the closer that date gets.

Full article on The Economist

© The Economist

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