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An Anti-brexit protester is seen outside the Houses of Parliament in London.Photo:Reuters

Opinion: Calls for a second Brexit vote deserve consideration

There is a majority against all conceivable solutions but none in favour of a concrete one

Britain now truly finds itself in perilous territory. Two and a half years after the Brexit referendum and with less than three months to go before the UK is slated to leave the European Union, its parliament has rebuffed a deal that would allow a managed withdrawal by 432 votes to 202, the biggest parliamentary defeat of a government in more than a century.

As a besieged UK government contemplates a stalemate in Parliament, the calls are growing for a second referendum. The growing clamour for a “people’s vote" deserves serious consideration in the face of a hovering no-deal scenario.

The country faces an extraordinary upheaval and it is not apparent whether Prime Minister Theresa May can engineer a solution. Granted that she was dealt a difficult hand to begin with but she has aggravated the risks.

Her conduct of the Brexit negotiations has been marked by poor leadership and intransigence. The prime minister triggered Article 50 before the government had any idea what it wanted from the negotiations or a clear view on how the timetable would work. May wasted time by pushing for general elections that she hoped would hand her an increased majority but which left her precariously as the head of a minority government. It took her until last summer to come up with a vision for a future relationship with the European Union. Yet her Chequers plan went nowhere in Brussels or within her party. It achieved the perverse outcome of unifying the Europeans and the hard right faction of the Tory party in vehement objection.

Hardliners within the Tory party have favoured a free-trade agreement modelled on the European Union-Canadian template. Yet, this hasn’t received broad support in Westminster.

The Canadian deal took years to negotiate and crucially, doesn’t cover services. It was not intended to serve as a blueprint for a deeply interconnected relationship such as Britain’s. The UK government hasn’t favoured it either. Reaching a consensus on its basic parameters before the end of March is thought to be illusory.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are some right-wingers who would be ideologically content with a no-deal scenario because it would at least deliver Brexit. Unsurprisingly, this virulent posture does not have a parliamentary majority backing it.

Moderate Tories have been utterly demoralized. They were dismissed by May in the early part of her premiership and their appeal to pragmatism has often left them isolated within their own party. Some have outlined an option modelled on Norway’s status as a member of the European Economic Area with single market membership but not European Union membership. Yet the politically toxic freedom of movement that attaches to the Norway model hasn’t produced voluble parliamentary proponents.

What about the Labour party then? The principal opposition’s stance is a laughable set of contradictions masquerading as a policy. Labour has supported leaving the single market and the customs union but at the same time, has said it will back the government only if it delivers an outcome that preserves current benefits.

Jeremy Corbyn’s Euroscepticism has driven a party of largely remainers to an uncomfortable silence. Given the Tory convulsions, Labour has failed to seize the advantage. Labour has also advocated a general election but that would not address a solution to Brexit.

What does this all mean then? Put simply, short of a last minute swerve, the odds point to a parliamentary stalemate.

There is a majority against every conceivable solution but none in favour of a concrete one. Chequers has been savaged, there is little momentum for a Canada-style model, Norway hasn’t got the numbers…and so on.

Against this backdrop, with a no-deal scenario looming, a people’s vote seems to be a mechanism to cut through the parliamentary uncertainty. Far from being a counter-democratic manoeuvre, it would put the key structural choices to the electorate for resolution. What it would also require is an extension to Article 50 or a revocation of the notice while the UK seeks to resolve issues.

Being open about the trade-offs and compromises involved is necessary to move forward. The country now faces volatile circumstances without precedent in its constitutional history. The prime minister has been weakened into admitting she needs to win her critics over. She has indicated the urgent need for cross-party talks to explore solutions. At the same time, she will also need to accept that her entrenched “red lines" may have to shift. It is also clear that her infamous bluster about “no deal being better than a bad one" has been consigned to dust.

In this febrile atmosphere, a people’s vote should be seriously considered if Parliament fails to reach a consensus. Further, it remains ever more important for Britain and Europe to work together to reassure anxious citizens and stem market volatility. Ideological dogma will need to be set aside. Cool heads and compromises are in order. Warring Tories will need to remember this. Otherwise, the risks of a Brexit no-deal scenario will be much worse for everyone involved, especially the least well-off.

*Rishabh Bhandari is a London-based lawyer and political commentator