Tory MPs are privately keen on a Final Say referendum – and now they could win a parliamentary vote
Some Conservative allies speculate there is an outside chance of Theresa May coming round to a second referendum vote if it were the only way to avoid a general election
Eurosceptics have long dominated the lively fringe meetings at the Conservative Party conference and this week’s event in Birmingham is no different. Jacob Rees-Mogg is everywhere. Boris Johnson’s event today eclipsed the mundane proceedings in the main conference hall.
Pro-EU Tories, who until the 2016 referendum were dominant among the party leadership, are now something of an endangered species. With the government determined to deliver Brexit, they have gone from being the establishment to insurgents.
Symbolically, the Tory high command banned the fledgling Conservatives for a People’s Vote campaign from being listed in the official conference guide. The heavy-handed response seemed to backfire: about 250 people crammed into an overflowing room in a nearby hotel on Monday for a lively, defiant meeting addressed by the pro-referendum MPs Justine Greening, Anna Soubry and Phillip Lee and former MP Neil Carmichael.
Slowly but surely, support for a Final Say vote is growing in the Tory party. It’s true to say that it is still a minority sport, with no equivalent of the strong grassroots Labour pressure which forced Jeremy Corbyn to include a referendum in the party’s options last week.
However, seven Tory MPs have come out for a referendum. I’m told that a slightly larger number are close to joining them. Lee, who resigned as a justice minister to oppose Theresa May over Brexit, told the fringe meeting that this group includes three ministers.
Backers believe the number of Tories supporting a referendum could rise to around 40 if parliament was deadlocked after voting down May’s deal and blocking a no-deal exit. They think support would grow if May proposes a “blind Brexit” – a withdrawal agreement accompanied by a vague “all things to all men” political declaration putting off key decisions on the future UK-EU relationship until after next March’s departure.
That might persuade other pro-EU Tories such as Nicky Morgan, the former education secretary, to back a referendum, partly because the UK would have little negotiating clout after signing off its £39bn divorce payment under the withdrawal agreement.
If the level of Tory support seems small at present, it is worth noting that you have to be brave to call for one.
From May downwards, another referendum is regarded as heresy, defying the “will of the people” as expressed in 2016 and undermining the UK in the negotiations (on the grounds it incentivises the EU to give the UK a bad deal so it decides to remain). One May ally described a referendum as “electoral suicide”, as the Tories could wave goodbye to working class Leave voters in the North and Midlands, who could hold the key to the next general election (which is why Labour is wooing them). There are genuine fears that a divisive referendum would only deepen the wounds of the 2016 vote, provoking a backlash against “anti-democratic” politicians that would widen the gulf between them and the public.
Against that, Tories who back a referendum insist they are not trying to scupper Brexit. Most accepted the people’s verdict in 2016 and gave May a chance to implement it. But, more than two years later, there is still no deal and time is running out. They point to the new information that has come to light since Brexit was mis-sold by Leavers. They describe Brexit as a slow motion car crash and insist that the national interest, far from “respecting” the 2016 referendum, demands that an act of economic self-harm be stopped. It could also be in the Tories’ own interests to call a halt: Greening is worried that the words “Tory Brexit” would be forever hung round the party’s neck if the economy took a hit.
Even Tories who oppose a Final Say vote acknowledge that the idea is gaining support. William Hague, the former Tory leader, wrote in today’s Daily Telegraph: “In recent days, significant voices within the Conservative Party have been raised in favour of a new referendum on leaving the EU. Alarmingly, for someone like me who thinks this is an extremely bad idea, they are voices of people I like and respect – Amber Rudd, Dominic Grieve and Sir John Major… if we’re not careful, a lot more people will turn to this idea, even without knowing the answers.”
Could May ever be won round to a referendum, perhaps one giving people a choice between her deal and no deal (but denying them the chance to remain in the EU)? It seems fanciful. Yet some allies speculate there is an outside chance of it happening, if it were the only way to avoid a general election. The attraction: resolving the Brexit question without the risk of losing power.
A more likely scenario is the Commons voting in favour of giving the public the Final Say. That would require Corbyn to go the extra mile, and he is not there yet. The gradually rising Tory support matters: with a stalemate in parliament and a no-deal exit looming, a cross-party majority of opposition parties and pro-EU Tories for a Final Say referendum might just be assembled.
The Independent has launched its #FinalSay campaign to demand that voters are given a voice on the final Brexit deal.
Sign our petition here