BORIS Johnson makes a lot more noise about everything than Theresa May, but after Saturday’s special sitting of the Commons, called to endorse his Brexit deal with the EU, he finds himself in basically the same position as his predecessor – defeated and desperately seeking allies, writes Ian Swanson.
Despite his surprise success in securing an agreement in Brussels last week, and the boasts that he had defied his critics by getting European leaders to renegotiate Mrs May’s deal and drop the Irish backstop, the Prime Minister could not persuade enough MPs to back him and instead the Commons compelled him to apply for an extension beyond October 31.
EU leaders have ignored his puerile gesture of not signing the letter required by parliament and sending another letter along with it reiterating his opposition to any delay and have said they will consider the request.
Now Mr Johnson will attempt to rush the legislation needed to implement his deal through Westminster so he can still fulfil his pledge of taking the UK out of the EU by his Hallowe’en deadline.
The signs are he could have the numbers to pass the Withdrawal Agreement Bill, but the catch for him is that opposition parties can also seek to amend it. One plan is to try to make the agreement conditional on holding a referendum, asking voters to choose between Mr Johnson’s Brexit deal or remaining in the EU.
There’s no guarantee a second referendum would produce a different outcome and certainly not a clearer one – many believe even if Remain won UK-wide this time, it would be by a similar margin to Leave’s 2016 victory of 52-48 per cent, though Scotland could well vote more strongly for Remain than the previous 62-38 per cent result.
But a fresh vote, three and a half years on, would at least give an up-to-date verdict on a detailed set of proposals rather than approval for a vague concept of getting out.
Up until now Labour has said it would prefer a general election to be held before a referendum, but the party’s Europe spokesman, Keir Starmer, announced at the weekend it would now put forward an amendment to require a public vote on Mr Johnson’s Bill.
It would surely make sense for the party to push for a referendum to settle the Brexit issue now rather than fight an election with the easily mocked proposal that Labour would go back to Brussels for yet another renegotiation and then put its deal to the people, up against Remain and probably campaign for Remain.
Labour might also prefer to delay an election until its poll ratings improve. The SNP, on the other hand, are doing well in the polls and although they also back a referendum, they want a general election to be held as soon as possible.
However close the result, a referendum would give a clearer picture of opinion on Brexit than holding an election when other issues inevitably influence the outcome.
General elections are for choosing governments for the next five years and however much parties might try to dictate what they are “about”, the voters will take into account all sorts of issues – as Mrs May found to her cost when she called the 2017 snap poll, hoping it would strengthen her Brexit mandate but discovering that Labour’s manifesto was more popular than she had expected.
But election, referendum or whatever else happens next, we can rely on a lot more noise from No 10.