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by Edward Jones 16th October, 2018
3 min read

Brexit’s border bothers at crunch time make a People’s Vote more likely

Brexit negotiations are now entering crunch time. As the clock ticks down towards Brexit Day in March, Theresa May and her chief Brexit adviser, Olly Robbins, are trying to wriggle out from between a rock (her own backbenchers) and a hard place (avoiding a hard border in Northern Ireland). The difficulty in uniting all parties around a Brexit deal is increasing the likelihood of another referendum.

As both Angela Merkel and the European Council President, Donald Tusk, have warned, gridlock means a no-deal scenario is “more likely than ever before”. Even if the Prime Minister can pull off a deal with Brussels that resolves the Irish border problem, there is no guarantee that she’ll get is passed by Parliament. The result of the 2017 general election and the fractures in the Conservative Party means that the policy of the opposition parties matters. The chances of Parliament rejecting a deal increased significantly after a change in policy from the Opposition.

Last month, Labour shifted its position on Brexit after conference delegates passed a binding policy statement which the leadership must now adopt.  This re-affirmed that the Party will not vote for any deal with does not pass six tests set by Labour, which include avoiding a hard border in Ireland and the impossible requirement that the deal must deliver “the exact same benefits” as the UK currently has, as a member of the Single Market and Customs Union. Indeed, maintaining membership of the former is now also Labour’s policy. It only requires six Conservative or DUP MPs to vote against the Government, for any deal to fall.

So, what if Parliament doesn’t agree a Brexit deal? The official position is that the UK will crash out of EU and trade on basic World Trade Organisation terms. This would theoretically mean a hard border in Northern Ireland, six-week delays at the Port of Dover for customs checks, and a 10% shrinkage of the economy, according to official Treasury forecasts. Labour has now explicitly ruled out “no deal” as an option it would contemplate. Many Conservative and perhaps even DUP MPs might share this view. Having ruled in the option of a public vote on Brexit (including the option to Remain), ruled out the Government’s proposed Brexit deal and ruled out allowing a no deal, Labour is unlikely to have any viable alternative but to back another referendum.

Constitutionally, the UK Parliament is sovereign and can pass law to enable another referendum. Faced with the choice between that and crashing out with no deal, it seems highly likely there would be a majority of MPs willing to force through a public vote, or “People’s Vote” in Parliament. Given that Lib Dem and now SNP MPs are calling for another referendum, the shift in Labour policy could mean there is a majority in Parliament for it.

The Prime Minister must clear two hurdles to deliver a Brexit deal: both the EU and Parliament. To clear both now looks very difficult. The shift in Opposition policy means that the chances of a so-called “People’s Vote” look a lot more likely.

See more articles by Edward Jones