Lesley Riddoch: Is Nicola Sturgeon the superwoman who can stop Brexit?

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Nicola Sturgeon should resist the growing calls for her to back a second referendum on Europe, writes Lesley Riddoch.

It’s official. Nicola Sturgeon is a political Superwoman who can singlehandedly stop Brexit.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon

True, she appears to be a mere earthling, but the First Minister can loup borders and party divides at will and force change in a Westminster chamber that roundly disdains her party, government and independence cause.

She also has Paul McKenna-like powers of mind control, which could reverse Corbyn’s deep-seated Euro-scepticism and paralysing indecision.

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Scotland’s First Minister might easily persuade the Labour leader to back a second EU referendum. If she doesn’t, a hard Brexit, with its full destructive force, will all be her fault.

Now granted, none of this is what former Labour cabinet minister, Andrew Adonis, actually said in a Sunday paper. But the hype – prompted by Nigel Farage’s surprise support for a second EU referendum last week – mean prospects of a Euroref2 are now the talk of the Steamie. And whilst Adonis’ tribute to the First Minister was probably sincere, his Lordship is simply setting Nicola Sturgeon up to fail.

Not just because Corbyn will sit on the Brexit fence until voters in the north of England are completely detached from Ukip. Not just because Theresa May has no intention of holding a second referendum. But primarily because a second bite at the EU referendum cherry is not even wise.

Lord Adonis disagrees. “I hope… the First Minister will strongly argue for a second referendum,” he said. “The tide is turning against Brexit in England and there is now a big opportunity to push for a second referendum before 2019.”

Certainly, a weekend ComRes poll for the Mirror showed Remain overcoming Leave outside the margin of error for the first time. But Jeremy Corbyn and his shadow cabinet didn’t seem interested. Asked about a second referendum on the Andrew Marr Show, shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry said: “If 90 per cent of the population was now saying we must stay in the European Union… then that would be a challenge. But, at the moment… we are leaving.” She added mysteriously: “But we have to look after the economy which, in my view, means that we don’t go very far.” What does that mean?

Meanwhile, in a Sunday interview with Robert Peston, her boss asserted: “We are not supporting or calling for a second referendum,” before repeating his claim that the single market is dependent on EU membership and delivering this soliloquy: “Do we have a trading relationship with Europe which is tariff free, which is based on access to that market, and access of Europe to our market? Yes. Do we push for that in the negotiations? Yes. Is that what we have said to the European Union in opposition? Yes.”

Now quite apart from the fact that Norway, Liechtenstein and Iceland have paid for single market access outside the EU club since 1994, Corbyn seems to think the UK can join the Customs Union and negotiate the equivalent of single market access without being in the EU or EFTA or accepting freedom of movement and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice which together underpin every trade deal. This is as delusional as May. So Sturgeon’s chances of persuading Corbyn to back a second referendum are low… and that’s a good thing because there’s no evidence it would solve anything.

Firstly, a second vote would only compound the problem of legitimacy created by the first. The Brexit vote was a non-binding, indicative ballot – yet MPs most refused to exercise either clout or judgment in response. Consequently, the Commons is now so weak it would have had no say on Brexit without the feisty Gina Miller – and this week MPs will be mere bystanders as amendments crucial to the existence of the Scottish Parliament are debated in the unelected House of Lords instead. This all creates a dangerous democratic deficit.

The current shambles at Westminster means a second referendum may result in a contempt-based repeat of the original result, or a mandate-undermining low turnout. Meanwhile there would be another period of government stasis and business turmoil – and for what? If Brexit is panning out to be a bad idea, politicians need no further democratic validation – they should strategise to stop it.

Secondly, the limitations of the binary “In/Out” referendum question remain. Unless there were further options on the ballot paper, how would another Leave vote let us know if the population wants to remain in the single market or not?

Thirdly, there’s timing. How could the public vote on the final deal and still let ministers return to the negotiating table if their best efforts have been rejected? It’s far more likely a post-deal Britain would finally fall off that much-feared cliff-edge.

Finally, for those who believe independence is the only way for Scots to extricate themselves from a self-harming, Brexiting Britain, a second European referendum will only clog up the works, exhaust the electorate and kick the prospect of a Scotref down the tracks.

Why then did Nicola Sturgeon appear to endorse a second EU referendum at the SNP party conference last October when she said it may prove “irresistible”? Four months is a long time in politics and it’s not clear what her position is today. The SNP leader said the consequences of a “no deal” Brexit would be “so dire” another vote might be justified. That’s a bit different to Messrs Adonis, Farage and Cable who want a second public vote on a deal, not just a “no deal” situation. Vince Cable suggests a Remain majority then should mean Britain stays in the EU. It’s controversial and contradictory stuff.

Meanwhile, the Scottish Government will today publish its own version of the Brexit impact analysis May’s government couldn’t be bothered to do. If it’s as scary as the weekend prediction that the end of free movement will kybosh the state pension, it should increase pressure on Remain MPs to organise and act. It should. But messages from Scotland – however cogent – have a poor track record of delivery down south.