A Final Say is the only way to heal the wounds from 2016 – it’s the right thing to do
People need to be given a clear, informed choice about the future of our country. We have delivered our petition to Downing Street, but the campaign doesn't stop here
The author Robert Harris summed up the case for a Final Say referendum on Brexit in a memorable tweet earlier this year: “Strongly suspect there will be 2nd referendum, not for any noble reason, but because MPs will desperately want to hand the screaming, defecating, vomiting baby back to its parents – the electorate – & let them decide what to do with it.”
As the crucial vote on Theresa May’s deal looms, it is plain that it will not gain sufficient Commons support. Neither will there be a majority for a no-deal Brexit, leaving the UK to deal with the EU on World Trade Organisation terms, with massive disruption likely along the way.
The “super-Canada” free trade option is no longer on offer from the EU in any case, because of the UK’s red line about the Irish border.
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Parliament will also reject another general election, or a transfer of power without an election to a minority Labour government under Jeremy Corbyn. There no longer seems to be a much of a mood within the Conservative Party for a leadership election or a no-confidence vote in Ms May. We are at an impasse, as has seemed likely for a long time. As that stark reality becomes clearer, so a Final Say referendum emerges as the only sure means of breaking the deadlock – either way.
These are not ignoble reasons for wanting to see the British people offered a last chance to express their approval of the terms of Brexit. There are many others, even more principled, too. Not the least of these is a growing sense of public support for this move. The Independent and the People’s Vote movement have delivered petitions with just under 1.5 million signatures combined to Downing Street demanding a democratic mandate, a strong indication of the popular will.
Some 700,000 people marched through London for a Final Say in October, while opinion polls show a trend towards more support for the right to approve the terms of the Brexit deal. Now they are known and, if anything, momentum in favour of this democratic imperative is growing stronger than ever. It is even being acknowledged by ministers, from Ms May down. And nowadays, the prime minister herself refers to the alternatives to her own plan being a no-deal Brexit or “no Brexit at all”. To some minds, that may be an ominous threat; to others, it is a tantalising promise of restorative democracy.
For now we really do know the terms of Brexit, as agreed by the British government and the European Union, and now there is a document to read, digest, debate and pass judgement on. As the EU constantly tells us, it is the only deal on offer. It is The Deal.
Yet few in Britain seem to have much affection for the UK-EU withdrawal agreement, especially in Ms May’s own party. Ministers such as Michael Gove who are sent out to “sell” the agreement seem apologetic about it. For many, on all sides, it represents the “worst of all worlds”. Some Leavers say, semi-flippantly, that they would rather remain in the EU on existing terms than agree to being obliged under international treaty law to sit inside the EU’s customs union indefinitely, which is until such time as the EU and the UK can agree on how to solve the Irish question.
Given that it took 400 years to get to the point of the Good Friday agreement, now only a provisional answer to the question, the UK may be spending a considerable amount of time inside the customs union. For some that will be very welcome; for others it allows Brussels “to “clamp its jaws around our hind limbs and prevent our escape”, in the words of Boris Johnson; or presents the situation of playing against a football team that is also the ref, as Sam Gyimah – the latest to support a people’s vote – has it.
If nothing else, Brexit has been excellent news for the production of British metaphors and similes.
Let us be frank. A people’s vote is not without its challenges. It would require the Article 50 process to be paused. It would need a majority in parliament to pass a referendum bill. It would need consensus on the question’s wording, the organisation of “lead” campaigns, spending caps and modern rules about social media and personal data. The electorate can only be asked to vote on the deal as it exists – and not on some fanciful deal that exists in the head of David Davis or Nigel Farage, though this will be vehemently disputed.
And yet a Final Say will allow all concerned to make a clear, informed choice on realistic options. It is the right thing to do. When the other options are exhausted, as they will be before Christmas, it will be all that is left.
After a suitable break over the festive season, the work to prepare for a referendum can take place over the next few months, and a vote be held in, say, April. It is the best chance remaining to heal the wounds inflicted in 2016 and after. It is in the national interest. It is the right thing to do. Increasingly it is the only thing that can be done.
The Independent has launched its #FinalSay campaign to demand that voters are given a voice on the final Brexit deal.
Sign our petition here