For a very long time, I considered a second referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU to be a complete impossibility. Neither major party has ever endorsed the idea, which is pretty fatal as these things go. However, I think it is starting to look ever more likely to happen due to a strange, in most cases unconscious, alliance that is converging.
May’s battle to get a deal with the European Commission could rage on for some time yet. The deadline keeps getting pushed back, now to mid-November – and that could easily slide further. Imagine that an agreement isn’t reached until February. This gives May very little time to get her deal through the Commons.
What is clear now is that there is a hardcore rump of Tory Brexiteers who will not vote for any deal whatsoever. This group mostly thinks that coming to the end of the Article 50 process without a deal will “call the Commission’s bluff” and the wondrous deal of dreams will then be forthcoming. May knows this group of her own backbenchers is unreachable, she must. This bunch cannot be appeased by anything she would even consider.
This means that she needs Labour MPs to vote for her deal in order for it to pass. The way I see it, the thing that Remainer Labour MPs from the Chuka Umunna grouping will ask for in return for voting for the deal is an amendment on a second referendum, one that has two choices: May’s deal or Remain. The prime minister will hate this – but given the only other option would be to face ignominious defeat in the Commons on the deal she has worked her entire premiership to achieve, I think she would, very, very begrudgingly, go for it. Yes, it would almost certainly finish her as PM, but that’s on the cards anyhow; at least she would get to go out with her deal having passed the House, even if it was subject to ratification via referendum.
To deal with one objection here and now: if the House of Commons voted to hold a referendum that either meant a deal the Commission had already agreed to, at least in principle, or Britain remaining in the EU, extending Article 50 would be easy.
If this scenario were to unfold, it would really be because of the obstinance of the hardcore Brexiteers. If they vote for Mrs May’s deal, Brexit definitely happens, even if it is initially in a form they don’t approve of; the second referendum opens up the real possibility of Remain. And still, it seems like this is what they will do, if this situation arises, which is fairly likely.
I don’t know what would happen if a second referendum were to be staged; in fact, I really don’t care to speculate about it at this time. Whatever the result, there would be some fairly bad blood. I think all this talk of rioting is a bit much, but there is no doubt it would poison British politics even further. If such a thing can be imagined.