Theresa May has delivered a speech intended to sell her “new bold offer” on Brexit, promising something to everyone. It aims to bring everyone together, from hard Brexiteers to Norway-style deal advocates to campaigners for another referendum, by “seeking common ground in parliament”. And yet – as foretold this morning – her speech has pleased nobody.
The Prime Minister’s hard Brexiteer flank isn’t budging, those who relented at the last vote on her deal are returning to their original positions in opposition to it, and even mainstream Tories who previously backed her are now switching. But what of Labour and its public vote campaigners? In her speech, May revealed that a requirement for MPs to vote on whether to hold a second referendum would be included in the withdrawal agreement bill. And the government would enact whatever decision was made.
This doesn’t mean Conservative MPs would be whipped to abstain on another referendum or given a free vote, however. We can assume the government would oppose the move. And she may be offering a guaranteed Commons vote and to formalise the process, but if the WAB were passed at second reading, MPs would ensure a second referendum vote would happen anyway – it doesn’t need her facilitation. May’s offer is no improvement on a simple amendment, and the idea of allowing WAB to pass at second reading so that MPs can then take a chance on getting amendments through has already been rejected by Labour.
May made her case to PVers by arguing that they need a deal and a withdrawal agreement bill in order to get a referendum. “Let it have its second reading, and then make your case to parliament,” she advised. And it is indeed difficult to see how MPs intend to secure a public vote without passing a bill. But don’t expect that to persuade anybody. Remember, another referendum is merely the process – not the end. The objective is to stop Brexit, and if the revocation path looks more likely and more acceptable than ever, that could be the next explicit goal of many more MPs.