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People's Vote

“I haven’t got the foggiest idea”

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“I haven’t got the foggiest idea”

Well the date has finally been set. Tuesday 11th December. Set your calendars. The Atlas Christmas Party is in the diary.

Oh, you thought I was talking about something else? That’s a little awkward!

Of course, the 11th December is also the date for the so-called ‘meaningful vote.’ At around 7pm MPs will vote on whether to approve Theresa May’s deal.

And then? Well that is a matter of considerable debate. This blog will attempt to assess what could come next.

So the vote?

Well if you take MPs at their word, the vote will be lost. 100 Tory MPs have said they will vote against the deal. And all the opposition parties have said they will vote against the deal. This means the Prime Minister (PM) does not have the votes.

Then the fun and games could really begin. Here are some potential options on what could follow:

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  1. The Prime Minister is removed

The rumour mill will go into hyperdrive if the Government lose the meaningful vote. Prepare for the prominent opinion that the Prime Minister and/or the Government is finished.

One thing you will hear a lot about is No Confidence Votes. Now, crucially a No Confidence Vote from Parliament is different to a No Confidence Vote from the Conservative Party. First let’s begin with a No Confidence Vote from Parliament. This requires a majority of MPs to vote they have no confidence in the Government. If this vote was lost, the Government would collapse, triggering a General Election. This is very rare in UK politics.

But the possibility has been enhanced by Labour Brexit Secretary Sir Keir Starmer suggesting it is “inevitable Labour will press no confidence vote if the vote is lost.” The DUP, whose votes the Government rely on are also refusing to confirm whether they would back the Government. This would make the numbers very tight and the end result unpredictable.

Ok, so now a No-Confidence Vote from the Conservative Party. This has no legal impact on the Government and is a direct vote against the leader of the party. This is a simple majority vote but only Conservative MPs can take part. Should the Prime Minister lose she would be forced to resign. To trigger this, 48 Conservative MPs need to request a vote by submitting a letter (yes an actual printed letter). Rebels have launched efforts to reach this threshold before, but have failed. Following ‘the meaningful vote’ we expect there will be another sustained attempt. And in a more febrile mood the rebels stand a greater chance. Yet, the struggle to date to even reach 48 letters means their ability to marshal the 160 or so votes to carry a ‘no confidence’ challenge against the Theresa May is far from certain.

Our view is that the PM suffers a greater threat from the House than from her own party.

2.    The Prime Minister is sent back to Brussels

After the vote the PM will be summoned to the despatch box. The mood of the House will dictate what happens next. One option could be they instruct the Government to negotiate a new deal with Brussels. That is of course assuming Brussels is in any mood to renegotiate. Some have argued that the only way to win further concessions from the EU is to show that Parliament will not accept their current offer. We’re not so sure.

What direction further UK-EU Brexit talks take would have to be focused on what deal could secure the support of the House as the new deal would have to be put to yet another Parliamentary vote.

To this end, cross-party talks have begun over the so-called Norway plus option. This is viewed as a softer Brexit. This angers Eurosceptics as the UK would have to retain free movement but would be more attractive to opposition MPs. It is feasible to see a deal of this kind gaining a majority in the House after a first vote is lost.

Another option is a ‘No-Deal’ Brexit or a negotiated ‘No-Deal.’ Legally, if the vote is lost and no further legislation is passed this is where we are heading. This would please the Brexiteer wing but would worry many more in Parliament. We believe Parliament will find a way to stop this.

Our (current) view is that Norway plus is more likely than no-deal. But ask us again next week!

3.    Another Vote

Could the Government have to go back to the people? A General Election? Another referendum?

Under the Fixed Term Parliament Act, a General Election (Labour’s preferred option) is hard to achieve without the support of the Government. A General Election could be triggered by the Government losing a vote of no confidence (as mentioned earlier). However, even in a divided Conservative Party, one thing that unites them is not wanting a General Election. Faced with the risk of Corbyn taking the reins in Number Ten, the tories will fight hard to avoid one.

On Monday, a petition carrying almost 1.5 million requesting a ‘people’s vote’ was delivered to Parliament. Despite the PM refusing to consider this option, momentum is growing. Former Universities Minister Sam Gyimah is the latest to voice his support. There is a debate over how you could turn any majority into the House into legislation to permit a second referendum though. Especially with a looming deadline and an unsupportive Government.

Our view is that the Government does not want to go back to the people. But in a Parliamentary stalemate this might be the last option standing.

Conclusion

Truthfully, no-one knows how this ends. There has been a lot of talk about a constitutional crisis. But, we just don’t know. We have never been here before. We are in uncharted territory.

So, as none of us are any the wiser, why not like us go out and enjoy the festivities. The matter of whether we still have a Government can always wait until the next morning!

We will leave you with the wisdom of BBC reporter Chris Mason, who when asked what could happen next candidly replied  “I haven’t got the foggiest.” Now there is a man who speaks for the nation.

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A People’s Vote will not deliver an exit from Brexit

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A People’s Vote will not deliver an exit from Brexit

Atlas Director and former Lib Dem Special Adviser, Vanessa Pine, argues the Lib Dems must stop banging on about Brexit.

Atlas Director and former Lib Dem Special Adviser, Vanessa Pine, argues the Lib Dems must stop banging on about Brexit.

Following Lib Dem conference, a nagging thought that has been growing in the back of my mind is getting louder. The Lib Dems must stop banging on about Brexit.

I don’t mean they should not talk about it ever, but at the moment they are pushing “an exit from Brexit” to the exclusion of all else. The party has become dangerously myopic. As the applause in the conference hall and the proliferation of fetching blue berets with yellow felt stars demonstrates, an imaginary get out of jail free card and the idea of a People’s Vote is like catnip to activists and the new members who joined following the 2016 failure of Remain.

 

Two years ago, when I first had this debate with the party’s then Director of Comms, the Lib Dems were a lone voice calling for a referendum on the final deal. Since then the Electoral Commission has called the spending of the Leave campaign into question, senior Brexiteers admitted their campaign promises were false and politicians on all sides of Parliament have now lined up to say the so called “Chequers deal” is rubbish. And so, as Brexit reaches its crescendo over the next few months, the opportunity to win new centrist, pro-European supporters has become more acute.

 

In which case, it may seem counter-intuitive then to argue that it’s time for the Lib Dems to talk about other things. But there are two big reasons why, in my view. Firstly, because I do not think we can win a People’s Vote and secondly, because the party must not consign itself to becoming a reverse UKIP single-issue pressure group.

 

Be careful what you wish for

This week the official People’s Vote published thoughts on how a second European referendum – or a first referendum on the final deal – might be brought about. But they are focussed on process not persuasion. From the public messaging, it seems that little has been done within the Remain camps or the Lib Dems to address why we didn’t win the argument in June 2016. The message is still an uninspiring one of economic doom. The same project fear that failed to secure a win last time.  Back then, only this Gordon Brown video sought to make the emotional case for remaining in the European Union. At best, People’s Vote are now saying “its ok to change your mind” which still implies “but we think you were wrong before”. The hope and the change, which uplifts and inspires voters, was and still is all on the Leave side.

 

More than 50% of the seats where Lib Dems are the main opposition (18 of 35) voted to Leave by a majority. Setting aside a People’s Vote, the party cannot win Westminster seats again without the support of at least some of the Brexit coalition. Yet too often it talks to those voters without empathy. We reject legitimate concerns by lumping them in with racism and ignorance. Even those from within the party struggled to get a hearing on a controversial new immigration policy debated on Sunday morning, which was explicitly amended to reserve the right to call Brexit voters racists.

 

This failure to meet people where they are, may be because only three of the current MPs represent Brexit majority constituencies. Partly because it gets so little media coverage, the Lib Dem narrative and policy offer fails to address legitimate concerns about standards of living, cuts to precious services and rising pressure on those services from immigration. Those on the doorsteps of St Ives, North Devon, Hazel Grove, Winchester, and Wells must “Demand Better” than that. Telling more than half your voters “you’re wrong” and – if there is ever a single moment in time when Brexit can be proven to be bad – “we told you so” – seems unlikely to change their minds. The polling evidence that voters on either side have changed their minds is patchy at best.

 

I believe this double failure of messaging and empathy means, even if the long shot comes off, the Lib Dems and other remainers would lose a People’s Vote. And by a wider margin. Leave would argue compellingly to people who have been left behind by austerity, that metropolitan liberal elites are still talking down to them, telling them they know best and blind to their concerns. “They are ignoring your wishes and trying to get off on a technicality, Go tell them again louder…” is far more likely to get voters off sofas and down to the polling station.

 

One trick pony

Losing a People’s Vote would take the issue of our European relationship off the table for a generation at least, if not for good. And as the AV referendum shows, the Lib Dems love a lost cause, in fact they revel in the nerdiness of technical merits over the practical feasibility. Post-Brexit, the Lib Dem leadership will face huge internal pressure to become the party of return. That identity crisis could consign the Lib Dems to perpetual political obscurity.

 

The party urgently needs to broaden the conversations it is having with voters. New liberal answers to people’s day to day problems are needed. Under Vince’s leadership foundations have been laid - the so called “ideas factory” is open, cranking out policy suggestions on taxation, health, housing, AI and tech. His attempts to make the party fit for purpose may yet bear fruit. And it is to his credit that he has shown vision for the movement beyond his own tenure. He is in politics to do something not be something. But having signalled his intention to step down, the party, the Westminster Village and the voters will have to look to the prospective candidates who might replace him to meet this challenge.

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