Prospects for an early General Election and a referendum on the terms of Brexit
What are the prospects for a referendum on the terms of any deal and an early General Election stemming from the ongoing Brexit crisis?
Nigel Farage recently toyed with the possibility of a 'second' referendum. Whilst ostensibly suggesting it might settle the Brexit debate for a generation, his real motivation is to have a referendum before the poor withdrawal deal being negotiated becomes obvious to a substantial majority of voters, and while the two largest parties maintain their 'have your cake and eat it too' support for Brexit. Some argue, perhaps even more importantly, that a referendum allows Farage another chance to be in the national spotlight, perhaps again as UKIP leader.
We should avoid reference to a 'second' referendum as it implies a lack of respect for a 'democratic' decision (the referendum's flaws have been widely discussed elsewhere). Many might regard any parliamentary vote which reverses Brexit as an elitist stitch up. What the people have done, only they can undo. So only a referendum on the terms will have the necessary shared legitimacy to reverse Brexit.
We should not consider the defeat of our Amendment 120 of the EU (Withdrawal) Bill last December as the end of the matter. There will be other opportunities to legislate for a referendum on the terms, including during scrutiny of the EU (Withdrawal) Bill by the Lords before Easter and during scrutiny of the 'EU (Withdrawal) Implementation Bill' in the Autumn.
While we should continue calling for a referendum on the terms (with the option to stay), we should recall political process is less immediately appealing to voters than individual circumstances. We should continue to blame Brexit for the worsening austerity, deterioration in public services, inflation and squeezed living standards.
There are two possible scenarios which may result in a referendum on the terms before it would have to be convened in March 2019 (unless the UK and all EU27 member states agree to extend the Article 50 negotiations timeframe).
Another referendum will continue to be fiercely opposed by the Government. However, if public opinion turns overwhelmingly against Brexit and it becomes increasing apparent this Autumn the Government has negotiated a poor Brexit deal, some Tory MPs may regard a referendum as a way for the Government to save face (and their seats). Farage's reappearance will add impetus for a referendum. One also cannot rule out Labour opportunistically coming on board late in the day (as Corbyn did just before one of the 2017 General Election leaders debates).
Secondly, a no deal scenario could prompt an economic and political crisis, potentially necessitating a General Election. In an excellent series, Michael Romberg http://www.london4europe.co.uk/a_political_forecast argues Parliament could "call for a referendum instead of a general election. But I do not see it happening … Parties instinctively wish to fight elections - it is why they exist. Calling for a referendum risks being seen as being closet remainers." If we assume Labour wins a General Election (as many believe), they might settle for the Norway Plus option https://www.libdemvoice.org/prospects-for-the-eu-negotiations-56347.html If Labour falls short of a majority, and forms a coalition possibly with ourselves, the chances of a referendum on the terms of a deal, with the option to remain, are greatly increased. We would argue it is easier and better to 'stay with a say' rather than 'pay with no say'.
If a referendum on the terms of any deal does take place, we should be sanguine it can be won. In 2016, the Cameron government's renegotiation was not credible. This time the Prime Minister will be associated with a bad Brexit deal and a deteriorating economy. Neither the Tories nor Labour has prepared the public for the trade offs and concessions that must be made in international negotiations. A greater public backlash is possible once it is more widely appreciated Brexit promises are either undeliverable or false - instead of Leaving saving us £350 million a week, Brexit is costing us £350 million a week https://www.ft.com/content/e3b29230-db5f-11e7-a039-c64b1c09b482
Leaders of any 'Stay' campaign will need to take on board the lessons of the 2016 referendum. They should make the positive cases for managed migration and how we can lead in the EU. EU citizens are essential to working in the NHS, picking produce in our fields, teaching in our universities, working as entrepreneurs and professionals etc. They enrich our culture and personal lives. They pay more in taxes than they take in benefits. Any problems associated with immigration should be addressed by adopting policies within our national control https://www.libdemvoice.org/pledge-to-rejoin-eu-needs-to-be-matched-by-eu-impact-fund-51133.html Leaders should also offer a positive vision for our deeper engagement in the EU where we can champion further liberalisation in services and the digital economy, both areas where the UK excels, and enhancing security by being at the heart of Europe.
Then there are events. In the run up to the 2016 referendum, the UK economy was doing well while growth in the EU27 was sluggish. Since the EU referendum the UK has moved from being the fastest to the slowest growing G7 economy. Furthermore, the EU27 has improved its collective response to migration and Eurozone challenges, both of which remain higher priorities than Brexit. In addition, the UK's demographics are changing.
Lastly, in 2016 pro-European groups were very weak. For those of us involved in the wilderness years, it has been heartening to see #INTogether and a national, albeit flawed, Remain campaign formed in a short period of time. Hundreds of smaller groups have popped up since. Today pro-European groups are more organised, better funded and are gradually becoming more co-ordinated. However, there is still much be done, notably identifying a single high profile leader of an umbrella campaign.
Stopping Brexit is still possible. So do join the Liberal Democrat European Group (LDEG) https://ldeg.org/en/page/join-ldeg and take part in our campaigns, write blogs, be active in social media, or help in any way you can. Brexiters want to take their country back, we Liberal Democrats want to take our country forward!
* Nick Hopkinson is chair of the Liberal Democrat European Group (LDEG) and former Director, Wilton Park, Foreign and Commonwealth Office.