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A People’s Vote or a General Election: how does Johnson’s new deal change things

Summary:
There is a big debate at the moment among those who support a People’s Vote (PV) about whether it should become before or after a General Election (GE). Let’s assume for now there are sufficient MPs willing to vote for the PV before a GE option, and that Johnson prefers a GE which he thinks he can win so there would be no PV. From a Remain point of view, should a GE or PV come first. I last discussedthis when a Johnson deal was dead and there was talk of the Conservatives advocating No Deal in a General Election. I made the point, which those advocating a PV before a GE do not appear to have considered, that if parliament passed a PV before a GE Johnson could boycott that PV. As I was told at the time that I was not living in the real world, let me explain why I think a Johnson boycott

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There is a big debate at the moment among those who support a People’s Vote (PV) about whether it should become before or after a General Election (GE). Let’s assume for now there are sufficient MPs willing to vote for the PV before a GE option, and that Johnson prefers a GE which he thinks he can win so there would be no PV. From a Remain point of view, should a GE or PV come first.

I last discussedthis when a Johnson deal was dead and there was talk of the Conservatives advocating No Deal in a General Election. I made the point, which those advocating a PV before a GE do not appear to have considered, that if parliament passed a PV before a GE Johnson could boycott that PV. As I was told at the time that I was not living in the real world, let me explain why I think a Johnson boycott would have been almost inevitable.

Consider Johnson’s options if parliament force him to hold a PV before a GE where May’s deal is on the ballot. If he accepts the ballot’s legitimacy, he is in an impossible position. Does he try and campaign for a deal that he himself voted against twice? Farage will certainly describe the ballot as illegitimate, and that would damage Johnson's prospects in the forthcoming GE. If he wins he gets May’s deal, probably a split in the Conservative party and a loss at the GE. If he loses he loses Brexit, which is his main asset in any GE

In contrast, if he says the ballot is illegitimate he protects his Farage front, and can continue to run an election based on parliament versus the people. His excuse for a boycott is obvious: who wants May’s deal? With no one recognisable prepared to argue the case for May’s deal, the ballot begins to look like a farce. Remain might get a vote greater than 17 million, but it is more likely the inevitability of a Remain victory means some Remainers do not bother to vote. I’m afraid those suggesting a boycott wouldn’t happen in those circumstances do not know how Johnson and Cummings work.

You might think that even with a Johnson boycott it is still worth it. If you think it would end Brexit I have bad news. If Johnson wins a GE having boycotted a PV he will say the PV was illegitimate and restart A50. With a majority in parliament Brexit (either very hard or No Deal) becomes a certainty. All the PV would have done is delay the inevitable. 

The critical question then becomes what impact a PV might have on the GE result. Will it reduce Johnson’s vote because some Leavers think the game is up, or will it fire up his Leaver base who feel they have been cheated out of the 2016 result. The latter is what the Brexit press and most Tory and all Farage politicians will tell them. I don't know the answer on whether a PV helps or hinders a Johnson GE defeat, but it seems to me this is the crucial debate for the PV before GE question.  

How does a Johnson deal change this calculation. I think it is reasonable to assume that a final deal will not be done with the EU before the EU summit.[1] The reason is simple. Any deal the EU would be prepared to agree to will leave the DUP and part of the Conservative party unhappy, and will almost certainly mean he will not get that deal through parliament. Johnson also knows that in all likelihood he will have to ask the EU for an extension and that the EU will grant it. It will be better for him to go into a GE arguing that he is on the brink of getting a deal, rather than a deal just having broken down.

It should be now clear that this situation makes a PV before a GE more likely to lead to a Johnson boycott than previously. The PV cannot have his prototype deal on the ballot as it has not been signed off by the EU. Johnson will say, with MSM credible justification, that a PV on any other deal is ridiculous, and that he should be given a chance to get his deal through. Because that logic will seem plausible to most Leavers, a PV before a GE looks increasingly like a desperate attempt to stop Johnson getting his deal. The chances of the PV before a GE increasing Johnson’s prospect in a GE increase significantly.

The fundamental lesson is that a PV has to go with political change. The Tories can boycott a referendum at any time, so a PV will only secure the end of Brexit if that vote is taken by a parliament that will not shortly afterwards start the process up again. That in turn means having a GE in which the Conservatives are defeated by Labour and the Liberal Democrats winning their marginal seats (and keeping their own). It means tactical voting by Remainers in the next General Election. The idea of a LibDem overall majority is a fantasy worthy of Brexiters.

Those who say a Corbyn led government would be worse than No Deal or a very hard Brexit are therefore working against Remain. Those who say Corbyn is not fit to be PM are working against Remain. Those who say Corbyn allowed Brexit to happen are working against Remain. Some of the people saying these things may call themselves Remainers, but tactical voting is the only realistic option for true Remainers.

To those who say to me that they cannot vote for Corbyn because he is a Brexiter, I can only respond in this way. Brexit is effectively impossible under a Labour government, because the Tories and Remainers will vote against it in parliament unless it goes to a PV, and in a PV many Leavers and all Remainers will vote against a soft Brexit. Whatever you think Corbyn’s beliefs are cannot change that. It is why the People’s Vote campaign is promoting tactical voting. Anything other than a tactical vote for Remain in the forthcoming GE is a vote for Brexit.

[1] The idea of attaching a PV to any approval of Johnson's deal when it finally comes to the Commons is very different, and not what I am talking about here. 


Simon Wren-lewis
Professor of Economic Policy at the Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford University, and a fellow of Merton College. This blog is written for both economists and non-economists.

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