Britain’s Labour party leaders are not regular Point of Order readers. Back in March we suggested it made sense for them to vote for then-Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal which would have ensured a (very) close ongoing relationship with the EU. They decided not to.
Now, as Prime Minister Boris Johnson charges towards the 31 October departure date with a policy of new-deal-or-no-deal, they have changed their mind. The party’s shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, says their plan is to tweak the May agreement and then put it to a second referendum, asking the voters to choose between it or remaining in the EU.
Desperation makes everyone a realist, you might think. With Labour behind in the polls, this move gives them a chance of keeping the pro- and anti-Brexit wings of the party together. Putting aside the opportunism, it looks like a carefully calculated judgement as to how they might keep the largest percentage of their voter base onside – with a general election widely expected to take place before the end of the year.
This makes it a bit harder for Boris Johnson. Having been denied a pre-Brexit election by Parliament, he says he will continue negotiating with the EU. But McDonnell’s announcement must reduce Europe’s willingness to change its position.
So assume there is no deal agreed by mid-October, what happens?
Parliament has passed a bill saying the PM must then ask the EU to extend Britain’s departure date. Boris says he won’t. But it’s not clear how he would wriggle out from the law’s provisions.
Well one way might be for him to resign. He can advise the Queen to ask someone else – say Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn – to form a government. If Corbyn fails, there’s an election. But if Corbyn can get the support of all Boris’s opponents – including the 20 MPs evicted from the Conservative party for supporting the extension – he would then be able to ask for the extension and perhaps hold his referendum. And then you might finally get the election.
It’s complicated – but easier to make sense of if you understand that much of the short-term action is all about shoring up support for that election.
Because if you think about it for a minute, Labour’s referendum is almost designed to ensure that full withdrawal from the EU stays at the heart of UK politics for the foreseeable future.