Yesterday’s debate was a turning point in the Parliamentary battle over Brexit, writes Alan Thornett. The session turned out to be more significant than expected given that May had put off the much promised ‘meaningful vote’ on her deal for another two weeks. It is now scheduled for March 12, and appears to be doomed to defeat once again.
Not only did May blink first, accepting that an extension of article 50 might now be necessary, but Labour – following the defeat of its soft Brexit proposal for an ongoing customs union – announced that it is now ready to back the call for a second referendum in the event of a no-deal or an unsupportable one.
The Cooper/Letwin amendment, calling for an extension to article 50 was carried with only 20 against. The ERG was split between no votes and abstention. At the same time there is no sign of anything new being offered by the EU.
All this makes an extension to Article 50 more or less inevitable – although May will want to keep this as short as possible. The EU, however, may well have a very different view. They will not only want to know what the delay would be for, but might well insist on a much longer extension; maybe up to two years.
The decision of Labour to support a second referendum with Remain as an option is a game-changer in the struggle against Brexit. It is a victory for those on the left in the party who have been campaigning for it and puts a serious question mark over the survival of the whole Brexit project. The most likely point at which a vote on this might be possible will be around the vote on May’s deal on March 12.
There is much debate around exactly what the question will be. Corbyn has made it clear, however, that there will be a Remain option on the ballot paper. It would clearly be useless without it. John McDonnell, speaking on ITV’s Peston, on Wednesday night, said Labour would push for another referendum at the earliest opportunity, if Theresa May’s Brexit deal was rejected when put to parliament.
He said: “When the meaningful vote comes back – and we are told maybe that might be on 12 March – there are rumours today that it could be next week … That’s the time when we will have to put the amendment up.”
If a majority in Parliament supports a second referendum it is important that Labour mounts a strong independent campaign in favour of a Remain vote. A Remain vote is not inevitable, but in my view, it is entirely possible with the strong political campaign.
In welcoming this development, we should begin the campaign for a far more democratic referendum than the last time. In particular the voting age should be 16 and EU citizens living in Britain should also get the vote.