Sturgeon must now fight for a People’s Vote on the EU

The Herald, Iain Macwhirter


Here’sS a measure of Scotland’s influence in Westminster right now. While Theresa May shredded her own middle-way White Paper on Monday night, in order to secure the consent of 40-odd Moggish Brextremists, an amendment requiring the consent of the Scottish Parliament was rejected by 280 votes. The parliament of Scotland counts for a lot less than a handful of no-deal, blue Trotskyites – as if you didn’t know.

It wouldn’t be so bad if the optimistically-named European Research Group (ERG) of Conservative MPs had any idea about what a clean break Brexit might look like, but they don’t. There is no rational “WTO option”, just a chaotic dislocation with our biggest trading partner leading, as even its advocates concede, to unstable prices, tariff wars, the loss of thousands of jobs and the collapse of long-standing agreements on everything from the safety of medicines to the extradition of terrorists. Oh – and the restoration of a hard border in Northern Ireland, which is already spiralling back into violent discontent.

The ERG amendments to the Customs Bill were designed to make impossible Theresa May’s plans, outlined only last week, for Britain to remain aligned with key EU institutions – a kind of Norway/EEA arrangement. They have succeeded. The bill as amended on Monday night makes the Irish back-stop arrangement, agreed by the UK Government only last December, unworkable because it rules there must be no divergence on customs arrangements with the rest of the UK. Another amendment requiring the 27 EU countries to set up complex machinery to collect British customs duties is manifestly bonkers and designed to ensure that Mrs May’s “facilitated customs arrangement” is rejected by Brussels even before it is submitted.

The Prime Minister had the opportunity to face down her hard Brexit fringe and lead the Remain majority in her own party and in parliament, but she opted for a meaningless compromise. This isn’t even a fudge – it is an act of self-immolation, by a desperate Prime Minister, living day-to-day, whose only solution to the gridlock in Parliament was to try to bring forward the parliamentary summer holidays. We have a leaderless government which has effectively abdicated responsibility at the height of Britain’s greatest post-war crisis. And it isn’t going to get any better.

Mrs May isn’t going anywhere. There will be no leadership challenge because the hard Brexiters, for all their noise and influence, only command around 40 to 50 votes in the Commons. A General Election is off the cards because the Tories realise that Labour would probably win it. A palace coup? Who amongst the dithering nonentities sitting round the Cabinet table has the will or the ability to seize the reins of power? Spreadsheet Phil? Wood-burning Gove? … Boris Johnson may see himself as a blond Churchill waiting for the call – but he’s going to have a long wait.

Britain is now stuck between a rock and a hard Brexit. The only certainty is that we leave the European Union on March 29 next year. Contrary to reports, the EU negotiator, Michel Barnier, was poised to welcome the White Paper, at least as a basis for negotiation. Brussels sees it, rightly, as an attempt by an essentially Remain-supporting Prime Minister to keep Britain in the European fold by a process of legally-binding regulatory alignment. The European Court of Justice would still be in charge, under Mrs May’s plan, even though Britain formally ceases to be under its jurisdiction. It would adjudicate on any disputes arising from Britain’s half-in-half-out arrangements.

It’s how Switzerland and the Ukraine deal with the EU. But a tiny minority of Tory MPs have forced the Government to accept amendments that make this realignment so difficult that negotiations can’t begin.So we have deadlock. With the clock ticking, and no-deal Brexit looming, there seems only one way out of this national crisis: another referendum. It grieves me to say this, since it would be a painful and divisive exercise. But with Parliament hopelessly stuck, the only people who can deliver us from this nightmare are the people who dreamt it in the first place: the voters of Britain. It was anyway a very narrow vote in 2016, 52 per cent to 48 per cent, which demonstrated only that the nation was divided. We knew about Cambridge Analytica’s digital jiggery-pokery, and now the Electoral Commission has fined Vote Leave for fraud. This doesn’t invalidate the result because the referendum was only advisory. Well, let’s seek a second opinion.

No, there’s no guarantee that the result would be any different. There’d be cries of “betrayal” from Ukip’s Nigel Farage, amplified by the tribunes of Brexit in the popular press. It would be an ugly contest in which MPs would be accused of treason – Mrs May already is. But at least the voters would be making an informed decision, unlike in June 2016.

One objection to a People’s Vote had been that it would have to be a multi-option referendum, including Remain, No deal and the White Paper. This was the vote proposed by the former Tory minister, Justine Greening at the weekend. But things have moved on. The White Paper is now blowing in the wind, the choice before Britain remains clear: it is to revoke Article 50, or opt for the cliff edge with Jacob Rees-Mogg. A clear choice.

It is time for the SNP to get off the fence and start campaigning. Nicola Sturgeon has been playing a waiting game, neither opposing nor supporting what might be called Brexyref2. She’s worried about the implications for the next Scottish referendum. But right now, Scotland is being marginalised, as this week’s votes show, and the SNP needs to get back in the race.

There is a vacuum on the Remain side which she could fill, since Jeremy Corbyn has, irresponsibly, rejected another referendum. Yet trade unions, most of the Parliamentary Labour Party and even the left-wing Momentum grouping are favouring a People’s Vote. The problem is a lack of leadership. Nicola Sturgeon is rightly regarded as a leader of unique abilities: it’s time that she demonstrated them.