There was no appetite to revisit the UK’s most divisive campaign, that produced its most destabilising decision. It was Liberal Democrat policy. Of course it wasn’t going to happen. But, like a handful of Lib Dem ideas that manage to escape into the mainstream, a so-called People’s Vote is now taken seriously – seriously enough, that is, for there to be a growing sense of an opportunity missed.
Credit to those who took an unpopular idea and made it plausible. A couple of years ago there would have been no more than a couple of dozen MPs who would vote for another EU referendum.
But hopes are fading fast. Theresa May can’t predict much with any degree of certainty when it comes to her own Brexit policy, so it was telling that addressing MPs on Monday, she felt sufficiently confident to call out supporters of the People’s Vote.
“While I will disappoint those colleagues who hope to secure a second referendum, I do not believe that there is a majority in this House for such a path,” she said. In other words, you don’t have the votes.
Again, May’s record on predicting votes isn’t the best, but on this one, she’s right: if a People’s Vote were put to the Commons today, it would do well to be defeated only as badly as the Government’s Brexit deal. The effect would be just as fatal.
It isn’t just the Prime Minister saying so. A cross-party group of ringleaders were forced into an embarrassing retreat yesterday, calling a press conference to admit they didn’t have enough support, and pulling an amendment that could have forced a vote on Tuesday, when MPs will choose between a range of alternative avenues.
Supporters of a People’s Vote have blamed Jeremy Corbyn for failing to give it his backing, and they will continue to. It’s true that the only hope for a People’s Vote is if Labour MPs are whipped to support it. Even then, the numbers aren’t guaranteed: while there are only a handful of Brexit true believers on the Labour benches, there are many more, like Grimsby MP Melanie Onn, who could never back a People’s Vote because of the backlash from her Leave-voting constituents.
The fact that, at the time of writing, we have yet to see an SNP amendment ahead of Tuesday’s, suggests they also see the writing on the wall, and don’t want to be the ones to force the vote that kills off a second EU referendum. With two months left until Brexit, next week could be the last chance for the MPs to influence events. The option that seems to have the broadest coalition behind it is the suggestion from Yvette Cooper and Nick Boles to extend Article 50 and delay Brexit – but they are under pressure to limit that delay to three months. If parliament’s idea of ‘taking back control’ of Brexit is limited to that, then there is simply not the will to force another referendum.
Meanwhile, Theresa May’s tactic of running down the clock and refusing to budge on red lines is making an impression on her fiercest Tory critics. Nadine Dorries and even Jacob Rees-Mogg are making conciliatory noises; the closer Downing Street clings to them and the DUP, the more likely the UK chases May’s deal at all costs – even over the Brexit cliff.
Criticism of a second EU referendum has focused on the democratic outrage some claim it represents, but the biggest problem with a People’s Vote isn’t the vote bit – it’s the people. They just don’t want one. Increasingly scunnered with Brexit, voters seem to be turning towards no-deal, whether they understand the implications or not. A People’s Vote is certainly not a vote winner; it might command support among Labour members but for everyone else, it must sound like a nightmare. It was never going to make it into a Labour manifesto for a snap general election.
It all points to a growing sense that a second EU referendum remains what it started out as – a pretty unlikely prospect.