Lesley Riddoch: Revoke doesn’t lessen chances of second indyref

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Who are the front-runners to take over as Tory leader from the beleaguered Theresa May? Has Gove been smarter than Hunt? Did Raab and Johnson jump ship too soon? Could Hammond’s lukewarm backing for a second referendum put him back in the frame? Has the grey man David Lidington already sewn it up? Or do we believe the gritted-teeth denials insisting no plans exist to unseat the Prime Minister?

Intrigue. It’s compulsive. Punters may struggle with the latest twists and turns of the actual Brexit process, but we know where we are with plots, conspiracies, egos, competitors and rivals. So this weekend, that’s what we got.

The London-based, Brexit-supporting Sunday press portrayed the Prime Ministerial wrestling match as Game of Thrones minus the hair extensions. Sure, the replacement line-up was underwhelming and the “personalities” either self-indulgent loons or zipped-up bureaucrats. But ramped-up talk of daggers at dawn sells papers and serves to distract from the dangerous vacuum of leadership and national purpose at the centre of British politics. It’s a bit like the vacuous speculation of football punditry. Or sitting at the back of the classroom watching someone else get into trouble.

Who doesn’t get caught up in this newspaper-induced frenzy of distraction?

Yet to be honest, who really cares? Or perhaps more accurately, who thinks the political demise of Theresa May or speculation about her replacements are the most important stories in Britain now? Would a new hand on the tiller change the doomy vibe? True - if a Brexiteer captured the top job, Theresa May’s unloved deal might suddenly look palatable to the DUP and ERG, and -- wrapped in some strong-man words about tough negotiating stances on future trade deals - might just stumble through the Commons on a third meaningful vote.

Hooray.

All that gets us to is the first, small landing on a vertiginous flight of stairs laden with a fudged deal, that’s worse in every respect than full EU membership, except for the fig leaf of political sovereignty it hands to whatever broken Tory leader is around to collect.

Still, that prospect remains a long way off. So was talk of succession really the hottest Brexit news of the weekend? Or was talk of coups, successors and men in grey suits deliberately spun and timed to obscure the really big stories of the weekend.

One – the People’s Vote march with a whopping one to two million participants.

Two – the Revoke Article 50 petition with a very whopping five million plus signatures.

Just as Theresa May’s meltdown and car-crash TV address became a real turning point in public, Tory party and EU opinion last week, so the size and energy of the People’s Vote campaign and wider Remain movement this weekend prove the 48 per cent are back on the front foot – even without support from the leader of the Opposition.

That’s quite a feat, and could yet change the dynamics of the remaining Brexit saga. A series of un-whipped indicative votes may be held in the Commons today or tomorrow – a laudable opening up of options. Although Theresa May regularly asserts that Norway Plus and a People’s Vote have already been voted on and rejected by the House, neither were free votes. If Tory MPs had supported a second referendum, the whip would have been withdrawn, effectively expelling them from the party and forcing them to sit meantime as independent MPs. Very few Tory MPs have been brave enough to contemplate that – so far.

A free vote could change all that, but is still fraught with difficulty. Since the plodding old House of Commons finds it impossible to use transferable votes even in a crisis situation, the order of voting will be all-important. It’s entirely possible MPs will vote against their second and third preferred options, hoping their favourite outcome wins the backing of the House, only to discover that it fails but there’s no going back to rearrange voting preferences.

If such a shambolic but predictable failure to capture real voting intent occurs, MPs could soon be back with the same limited choice that faced them last week – Theresa May’s deal or no deal. Except that now, courtesy of six Scots parliamentarians who’ve demonstrated the capacity to crowd-fund, think ahead, act together and ignore intimidation from all sides, the Commons has another option -- to revoke article 50, halt the Brexit process, decide what to do politically thereafter and, in all probability, save lives.

According to one Scottish MP, a nurse in central Scotland wrote last week; “We use so many specialised drugs in paediatrics and we’re breaking our budget hoarding what we can. But drugs have such short shelf lives it’s utterly pointless. We also worry about our incredible specialists and surgeons leaving the country. My job is hard enough, but I might as well become an undertaker at this rate.”

If MPs are running out of road to avoid such a crisis by April 12th, pressing the Revoke button could make a lot of sense. Of course, no-one will ever give due credit to the politicians who made that escape route possible.

As Joanna Cherry MP (one of their number) observed last week; “Theresa May has sought to marginalise Scotland throughout the Brexit process, so it’s a rich irony that Scottish Parliamentarians and the Scottish courts have offered the UK the lifeline it needs to escape the mess she has created.”

It’s an irony that won’t be lost on Scots. A Revoke petition signatory said this weekend; “Signing was the first time I’ve felt I have a say in what happens since June 2016.” As those who remember the late momentum behind Yes in 2014 can testify, that’s a heady feeling. And once it becomes clear that Revoke doesn’t lessen the chances of a second indyref, numbers signing up are likely to grow.

And that’s the real story of the weekend – not blethers about the dissolving grip of Theresa May.