Will it table the necessary amendment or is it all just words?
Enthusiastic it was not. The Labour leadership finally adopting the policy set out at Conference of seeking a second referendum, now that a general election is not a viable means of stopping Brexit, came with all the keenness of toddler being encouraged to eat spinach. Even now, Corbyn is happy to mix notional support for a referendum with ‘other solutions’ being on the table.
This matters because in the next two weeks, parliament will again vote on the Withdrawal Agreement that the PM negotiated, and will quite likely once again reject it unless Geoffrey Cox can pull a miracle out of his talks in Brussels. If it does, parliament will then almost certainly symbolically vote against a No Deal outcome, even though that’s scheduled to automatically happen by automatic operation of EU and UK law unless some active intervention prevents it.
But it’s the vote after that which is of most interest as far as a second referendum goes. When Theresa May publicly admitted the possibility of an A50 extension, she was clear that it would be ‘short’ – by which we can assume that she means to a date no later than July 1.
That date matters because it’s when the current European Parliament expires, after which the new one takes office. In other words, if Britain leaves the EU before July, it doesn’t need to take part in the EP elections; if it’s still a member into the second half of the year, it does.
The issue isn’t simply that Britain wouldn’t be represented in the parliament, it’s that if Britain’s seats are distributed out before Britain leaves, then there may be MEPs sitting and voting who are not entitled to do so, which could invalidate the Parliament’s actions in entirety.
In order for Britain to take part in those elections, the arrangements will need to be made in April at the latest but as that’s only a couple of weeks at most after the current Brexit Day, in reality, the choice as to whether or not the UK will be part of the EP vote will be determined at the time of the A50 extension request and grant, which in turn will be determined (on the UK’s side at least) by the vote currently slated for March 14.
However, if there is to be an EURef2, then a longer extension will be necessary because 15 weeks is far too short a time to have any confidence that parliament can pass an Act authorising a referendum, the campaigns can organise and register with the Electoral Commission, and the vote can be held. It is, perhaps, just possible that it could be done but there’s no way whether that could be known beforehand – so as the new Brexit Date has to be set beforehand, it’d be reckless in the extreme to try tie everything down to such an assumption.
In reality, it’s highly unlikely that an EURef2 could be held before September, though even six months might not be enough (the Act authorising EURef1 took seven months going from introduction to Royal Assent; the whole process through to the day of the referendum lasted more than a year).
Which is where we can turn our attention back to Labour, and to Jeremy Corbyn in particular. We can expect the government to table a motion seeking the House’s endorsement either for a specific new Brexit Day on or before July 1, or to leave discretion on the date to the government. If the motion is carried in either of those formats, it takes an EURef2 off the table as a viable option.
Put another way, if Labour is serious about a second referendum, it will need to amend the March 14 motion to require the government to request an A50 extension of at least six months, and hence for the UK to participate in the EP elections.
Of course, even if Britain does request that, there’s no guarantee that the EU will say ‘yes’, or that they won’t attach unacceptable conditions. That, however, is a separate consideration: one thing at a time.
Will Corbyn do it? I’ve no doubt that he doesn’t want a referendum but I’ve equally no doubt that Keir Starmer, backed by many Labour MPs and members, believes that the Conference mandate requires more than warm words of support and is pushing to practically effect that, and that Starmer will have worked out the procedural mechanics faster and more accurately than Corbyn (and, indeed, have greater interest in them). I therefore expect Labour to table the necessary amendment – though if the front bench doesn’t, I’d expect a backbencher to do so.
Of course, neither the passage of an amendment requiring a longer A50 extension, nor the agreeing of that additional membership by the EU, guarantees that a referendum will happen: that’s a whole extra troublesome process – and it has to be passed in the first place, which is no given. However, in and amongst the rest of the internal Labour dynamics, this is another angle to watch out for and, rather like many of the other Brexit questions, one that can be fudged or delayed no longer.