Amid the excitement of Prime Minister Theresa May suddenly being on speaking terms with opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn, something has happened in Parliament that could alter the course of Brexit.
MPs voted – by a majority of just one vote – in favor of something called the Cooper Bill, that takes a no-deal Brexit off the table for good, by making it illegal in British law. This could have the (probably unintended) consequence of making a second referendum inevitable.
Here’s how that might happen. If the May-Corbyn process does not produce a compromise that can be quickly ratified, the UK government would be forced to request an extension to the Brexit process beyond April 12, the current cut-off-date. And without the prospect of a deal being agreed before May 22, the day before elections to the European Parliament begin, the proponents of a second referendum will push for a long delay.
Here’s the logic.
First of all, any significant alteration to May’s Brexit deal ought to have proper parliamentary scrutiny. Many of the Brexit alternatives debated by the Commons earlier this week were fantasy options that were rife with legal problems or were without precedent.
As People’s Vote campaigner, Tom Brufatto, told me: “It’s very late in the day to vote on alternatives without adequate scrutiny. Parliament needs to be given the space to properly look at these options to avoid a blind Brexit and commit to putting any Brexit deal back to the people.”
Second, in those indicative votes, a second referendum has been more popular than anything else. And the Prime Minister has committed herself to respecting the will of parliament.
Third, and most importantly, in the event of a long extension, the UK will still be an EU member state, with lawmakers in the European Parliament, and no fixed plan for leaving. At that point, it would be absurd that any public vote would not have the option of remaining in the EU.
Fourth, the EU has repeatedly said that it would need a good reason to grant a long extension. A referendum or general election would likely qualify as a good enough reason. And a referendum is far more likely to provide clarity than an election.
Finally, even if the Withdrawal Agreement does pass swiftly, MPs might insist that May’s deal is put to the public anyway. “A referendum on the deal is looking more likely than ever, which in itself is a remarkable achievement,” Labour MP Wes Streeting told me. “It’s very clear that it provides a route, perhaps the only route, to breaking the deadlock in Parliament and restoring some democratic legitimacy to a deeply discredited process.”
So there you go. Brexit, it seems, is unlikely to go away any time soon.