Trade Knowledge Exchange > Commentary > Edging towards a people’s vote on Brexit?

Edging towards a people’s vote on Brexit?

On Saturday October 20 the second, long-planned, march in support of a People’s Vote (that is, a further referendum) on the terms of any eventual Brexit deal took place in London.  In perfect autumn weather the march wound its way from Park Lane through the centre of London in the direction of Parliament Square, where a variety of anti-Brexit parliamentarians from all the main parties and other public figures spoke in support of a referendum.  An estimated 700,000 marchers from all over the United Kingdom turned out, exceeding even the wildest expectations of the organisers and police and for long periods bringing major streets in the West End to a standstill.  Even if that figure is an over-estimate, the march was huge.  It was colourful, good natured, enthusiastic, entirely peaceful, and with some notably witty slogans on the banners.  It also dropped remarkably little litter for a demonstration of such size.

Formally the march was, as already noted, in support of a People’s Vote.  In practice most of the banners expressed straightforward hostility to Brexit.

Did it change anything?  In the immediate political sense, no.  The march, however impressive in itself, had no authority beyond being an expression of opinion.  The UK Government has very pointedly ignored it, while making clear its determined opposition to the idea of a further referendum[1].  It persists with an approach still based essentially on Theresa May’s widely criticized “Chequers” proposals for zero tariffs on goods traded between the UK and EU, a “common rulebook” of standards and a facilitated customs arrangement.  Observers in the 27 other EU member states and the European institutions will have watched very closely what was happening in London and while the EU is currently showing signs of flexibility, for example over the duration of a UK implementation period post-Brexit, any impact of the march on EU policy towards Brexit is likely to be to reinforce the Union’s existing positions.

What the march did do was raise public awareness of the continuing strength of pro-EU sentiment among the 48% of those voting in the 2016 referendum who opted for Remain.  It also reflected growing concerns of people who may have voted Leave but are now increasingly concerned by the daily reports fresh economic and procedural problems arising from Brexit.

So how do the arguments line up now?  Reporting to Parliament on 22 October, Mrs. May claimed that 95% of the Withdrawal Agreement was in place, covering not only citizens’ rights and the methodology for determining UK financial obligations on withdrawal, but many other essential matters such as special Protocols for Gibraltar and the Sovereign Base Areas in Cyprus, and dispute settlement machinery.  There was also “broad agreement” on the structure of the future relationship in such matters as security, transport and services.  However the entire agreement is still hung up on the Irish border question, which has the capacity to derail it.  The UK, said Mrs. May, will not accept any proposal which would involve a customs border in the Irish Sea.  Negotiations were now focusing on a temporary EU-UK “joint customs territory” based on four key points.  It must (i) be legally binding; (ii) keep open the option of extending the UK’s implementation period for a limited period as an alternative to the EU’s “backstop” proposal for Northern Ireland (under which Northern Ireland, or possibly the UK as a whole would abide by EU rules until a long-term arrangement was hammered out), but no longer than the lifetime of the current Parliament; (iii) ensure that no arrangement agreed was permanently binding; and (iv) ensure that Northern Ireland business has full access to the whole of the UK market.

Despite these new signs of willingness on both sides to edge towards an agreement, Mrs. May’s new suggestions have not gone down well.  Brexiters object to any solution that might keep the UK subject to customs union and Single Market rules for a moment longer than the current proposed implementation deadline of December 2020.  They want out, full stop.  Remainers complain that the new suggestions would preserve some of the procedural benefits of customs union and Single Market membership, but would jettison all the political rights which the UK currently has in the EU.  It has been clear for some time that Theresa May is very unlikely to be able to muster a parliamentary majority for whatever proposals she could negotiate with the EU on the basis of current UK policy.

This means that there is no clarity as to how the motion for the promised parliamentary “meaningful vote” on a potential Brexit deal can be formulated.  Nobody knows.  A kite recently flown by the Secretary of State for Exiting the EU resurrecting an earlier proposal that such a vote should be take-it-or-leave-it has caused widespread parliamentary outrage.  And following the non-event of the October 17 European Council meeting, and with doubt cast on whether the European Council will even think it worth returning to discuss Brexit in November, the prospect of a No Deal outcome grows more plausible.

What will or could happen in any of the possible eventualities is totally unclear.  Parliamentary deadlock and confusion, or even political chaos, are widely predicted.  One consequence could be that a People’s Vote then became a more feasible course.  If it came to a General Election, the Conservative Party, apart from the Brexit diehards, will be much more scared of losing power to Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party than of losing Brexit, and in that scenario a People’s Vote could be a way out of the political impasse.  Time to hold it before the Brexit date of 29 March 2019 would be very tight, but the EU side would assuredly be prepared to adjust or suspend the Article 50 timetable to accommodate a new expression of opinion by the British people.

So in subtle ways the march probably has contributed to serious practical thinking on the issues.

TKE will report on the implications of the range of possible outcomes as they emerge. 

[1] See separate article on Democracy, Referenda and Brexit

About the Author

Michael Johnson


Michael Johnson was a senior official of the UK’s former Department of Trade and Industry, where he worked on international commodity policy, UK bilateral commercial relations with developed country markets, and the UK’s input to EU external trade policy. He is in demand as an independent consultant, and has advised governments of more than twenty developing or former Communist countries on trade policy formulation and on trade-related development projects.

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