Brexit Britain European Union

A People’s Vote – What’s in a Name?

Can the refusal to implement a referendum result without insisting on a rerun ever be considered democratic? No? What if we call it a "People's Vote"?

Oliver Pridmore
Naked Politics Blogger

There is an old episode of Blackadder which comically portrays the efforts of Dr Samuel Johnson to put every single word in the English language down on paper in his first dictionary.

In one scene, he proclaims that he has indeed managed to place every single English word in his revolutionary new book, to which a mischievous Blackadder replies:

“In that case sir, I hope you will not object if I also offer the doctor my most enthusiastic ‘contrafibularities’.”

For today’s dictionary writers, they will undoubtedly face an equal struggle when they come to defining Brexit.

Currently, their definition reads: “The withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union.”

If only it were that simple!

However, it is far from the only aspect of the Brexit landscape for which people struggle to pin a definition upon. The proposal for the public to have a referendum on Theresa May’s final deal is known by many as a second referendum.

But, in a 2017 interview on Chopper’s Brexit Podcast, one of the significant backers of the proposal, Liberal Democrat leader Sir Vince Cable, was at pains to reject the branding of the plan as a second referendum.

He said: “We don’t use the phrase second referendum because it implies some disrespect for the judgement of the people who voted first time, what we say is that there should be a popular vote on the final deal.”

From Sir Vince’s floating of a “Popular Vote” on an obscure political podcast two years ago, we now have the “People’s Vote” campaign with backers including three former Prime Ministers and over 50 MPs.

But whatever its strength in numbers, the campaign is now constrained by the fact that we are due to leave the EU in eight weeks’ time.

Tuesday night could have changed that reality.

The House of Commons was voting on a series of proposed changes that MPs had suggested to Theresa May’s deal.

The Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, selected seven amendments that would be voted on and two in particular could have dramatically changed the landscape.

An amendment by the Labour MP Yvette Cooper proposed that if the Government hadn’t secured the backing of Parliament for their deal by the 26th February, the date we leave should be postponed until the end of the year. An amendment by the Labour MP Rachel Reeves called for a similar delay but didn’t put a limit on how long the delay could be.

Both could have led to delays so significant that arguments for a People’s Vote may have gained more traction in those timeframes. But both were voted down.

Nevertheless, depending on the success of the Prime Minister’s return to Brussels to try and change the deal, the debate over a People’s Vote may continue to rumble.

One of the main arguments of the campaign is that people now have more information than they had when they voted in 2016. Others point out that when looking at the current state of Parliament the current information on what the deal will be remains unclear.

As with the attempts to change the Brexit deal, analysing the possibility of a People’s Vote often contains many hypotheticals.

Would the result be the same? Would it be more in favour of Brexit? Would it be more in favour of Remain? As The Guardian’s Polly Toynbee controversially suggested, would the number of Leave voters dying change the result?

For now, the prospect of a People’s Vote appears to be slim given that despite attempts by Cooper and Reeves to change the fact, the legal date by which we must leave the EU is fast approaching.

However, if Theresa May’s return to Brussels proves to be unsuccessful and she decides against leaving without a deal, she may take the currently unlikely step to postpone the leaving date herself.

Were that to happen, the prospect of a People’s Vote would undoubtedly come back to the fore.

Whether another plebiscite would be appropriate before the first vote has been implemented would be a matter for intense debate. Maybe we need a referendum on that?!

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