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Alban Maginness: Second referendum on Brexit might be only option if PM is defeated in the Commons

A UK-wide people's vote on whether to leave the EU is an idea whose time has finally come, argues Alban Maginness


Michael Gove has warned his party about the momentum behind a people’s vote, an
idea Lord Adonis raised here last summer, and which Jeremy Corbyn could support

Michael Gove has warned his party about the momentum behind a people’s vote, an idea Lord Adonis raised here last summer, and which Jeremy Corbyn could support


Jeremy Corbyn

Jeremy Corbyn

Getty Images

Lord Adonis

Lord Adonis

Michael Gove has warned his party about the momentum behind a people’s vote, an idea Lord Adonis raised here last summer, and which Jeremy Corbyn could support

In July, Lord Adonis, a former Education Secretary under Tony Blair, visited Queen's University to campaign for a second referendum on Brexit. At the time, it seemed like a fanciful idea, doomed to inevitable failure.

A colourful and entertaining speaker, Lord Adonis gave a persuasive lecture on the need for a second referendum to stop the inevitable calamity of Brexit.

He spoke very much from the viewpoint of a British parliamentarian, but he had surprisingly little of note to say about Northern Ireland, although he emphasised the need for a soft border in Ireland.

He spoke as an ardent Remainer and a very strong Europhile. It may well be that his Cypriot parentage has made him a natural Europhile.

His audience was receptive and evidently supportive of the rather elastic concept of a second referendum on the issue of Europe.

But, at the time, his idea was not regarded as a realistic, or practical, alternative to the grinding process of the United Kingdom Government negotiating Brexit with our European neighbours. His big idea of a people's vote had not come of age.

However, the past few weeks of sound and fury have thrown the idea of a second vote on Europe into the centre of real political debate in Westminster.

Given the whirlwind of political reaction and chaotic manoeuvrings surrounding Prime Minister Theresa May's withdrawal deal with the European Commission, the idea of another referendum has almost reached centre-stage.

Lord Adonis himself has been to the forefront in saying that there is no practical alternative if Theresa May's deal is defeated in parliament.

He, along with most other informed observers, is convinced, despite her determined efforts, that Mrs May will be unable to get a parliamentary majority for her deal.

There is little doubt, if one listens to the media, that the Prime Minister has failed to convince a substantial portion of her own backbenchers to support her deal.

The attitude of Jeremy Corbyn's Labour Party seems to be opposition for opposition's sake, irrespective of the real benefits of this compromise plan.

Cynical though that may be, that is the current attitude of the bulk of the Labour parliamentary party when it comes to this crucial vote on December 11.

Sadly, while the DUP will vote against the deal, no alternative nationalist voice from here will be heard, because Sinn Fein will absurdly adhere to their archaic position of abstaining from Parliament, while, of course, taking the Queen's shilling in the form of generous expenses.

Unless a parliamentary miracle happens, May's compromise deal, imperfect though it is, will be rejected by Westminster.

Not even the Christmas season of goodwill and peace to all men is going to change the political arithmetic.

If the Brexit deal is rejected by parliament, what will happen next?

As both Theresa May and, more importantly, the EU have indicated, there is no alternative to this withdrawal deal. There will be no substantive re-negotiation.

Unless everyone completely loses their minds, a crashing-out of the EU looks remote. Outside a full-blown re-negotiation, the only two real runners are a general election and a second referendum on Brexit.

As far as a general election is concerned, even though there is significant opposition to Theresa May as Prime Minister, it is unlikely that any sane Tory backbencher would vote against the Government in a vote of confidence, in accordance with the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act.

Given the political volatility among the electorate, nothing is certain and a Tory victory unlikely.

Given the season that we are in, it would literally be like turkeys voting for Christmas.

Therefore, if Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn loses his vote of no-confidence in the current Tory Government, and thereby fails to get a general election, he will champion a People's Vote.

During the last week, Labour sources were signalling their support for such a fresh referendum, and it appears likely that Corbyn will officially endorse that position.

Lord Adonis and others are convinced that the political direction will be in favour of another referendum to try to resolve the whole question of withdrawal or staying within the EU.

He has predicted that such a referendum is likely to take place in the middle of 2019.

Such is the intense speculation as to what will happen if Mrs May loses the vote that Cabinet minister and arch-Brexiteer Michael Gove has said, by way of warning to fellow Brexiteers on the Andrew Marr Show on Sunday, that there could be a majority in the House of Commons for another referendum if the current deal is voted down.

Maybe Lord Adonis's visit to Belfast in the summer was not in vain after all.

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