Whatever the state of the Brexit negotiations, Britain remains a long, long way from a full-blown second EU referendum.
Too far, most Westminster watchers believe, for a referendum to happen before Britain leaves the club at 11 p.m. on March 29, 2019.
Why? Isn’t a head of steam building for a “people’s vote?” Didn’t the popular London mayor come out in favor? Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat claimed Thursday that EU leaders are on board too. Surely it’s only a matter of time before the desperate prospect of no deal forces a change in the political weather in Westminster?
Don’t bet on it.
A well-funded, cross-party campaign has certainly found some political traction with calls for a referendum on the terms of Britain’s EU divorce. After months of flailing around for a slogan, suddenly “people’s vote” has started to show signs of polling well.
Unite, the most important union backer to leader Jeremy Corbyn, is “open to the possibility of a popular vote.”
But that’s still not a second referendum on EU membership — it’s a vote on the terms of the divorce.
Take a look at the Labour Party’s internal machinations to see how far away a proper second referendum still is.
After blocking a debate on Brexit at last year’s conference, Labour members will at least this year get a say on what the party’s position should be in the crucial final few months of the Brexit divorce.
On Sunday, behind closed doors, some of the big players in the Labour Party, including Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer and some of the major union power brokers, will meet to thrash out a new policy position on a “people’s vote” to put to Labour members.
Like all good backroom fixes, the result is likely to be a fudge, according to Labour officials who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Those in the know point to recent union compromise positions, which inch toward a final popular vote on the terms of the divorce but do not actively endorse it. None (yet) are calling for an actual second referendum on EU membership.
Unite, the most important union backer to leader Jeremy Corbyn, is “open to the possibility of a popular vote.” The TUC, which represents most big U.K. trades unions, has warned it will throw its weight behind “a vote on the terms of Brexit” if the divorce terms Theresa May comes back with from Brussels are not good enough.
Note: not on Brexit itself.
Why not? Len McCluskey, Britain’s most powerful union baron, explains: “The majority of Labour Party members don’t want Brexit [but] the majority of working-class people do.”
In other words, winning a general election might mean not trying to stop Brexit.
“Let me be clear, we are not calling for a second referendum,” he said. “In or out of the EU matters less than getting the Tories out of office.”
None of this is to say a shift in Labour’s position on a referendum on the terms of the divorce would not be significant. It would.
But to become really significant Labour would then need to win a majority for this in the House of Commons. Very few Tory MPs would support, but more importantly, a good chunk of Labour MPs, with an eye on their pro-Brexit constituencies, are likely to refuse to back it.
Some Labour MPs have already concluded that time has run out for a “people’s vote” — even if they don’t say so publicly. What many are now focussing on is a referendum before the end of the transition period, once the future relationship has been ironed out, giving people the option of accepting the new deal or rejoining the EU.
The People’s Vote is just a part of a campaign, which may go on for years, to get Britain back into the EU. As things stand, its chances of stopping Brexit altogether remains slim.