Downing Street’s hope the meaningful vote on the Withdrawal Agreement would pass last night was blown apart over twelve hours before the vote when the Attorney General gave the Prime Minister his advice that, despite the new agreements reached the previous night, the legal risk the UK would have no lawful means of exiting the Northern Ireland Protocol’s arrangements, remained.
With the very high likelihood MPs will vote against leaving the EU with a no deal today (notably through passing amendments to the Government’s motion rather than the motion itself), and the possibility MPs will vote to extend Article 50 tomorrow (Thursday), could a second referendum now be the Prime Minister’s only remaining option for her deal to pass?
Yesterday was the best possible chance of her deal getting through Parliament and, with such a small chance it will pass a third and final attempt before 29th March, all options may be back on the table. Having repeatedly ruled out a referendum, the move would seem unlikely but when weighed against her natural opposition to Parliament wrestling ever greater control of Brexit negotiations, directly or indirectly, it could just be her saving grace.
So, what could a second referendum look like? It is unlikely, although still possible, the Prime Minister would agree to ‘remain’ being an option, given her long held assertion that she will deliver on what the people voted for, but a referendum between her deal and no deal could be a way around Parliament repeatedly voting against her deal. It might even be worth her taking a gamble by including Labour’s option of a customs union and single market access as a third option, to appease those calling for ‘remain’ to be included. Using the Single Transferable Vote system, Downing Street might bet on enough second preference votes from people voting for Labour’s option over no deal, to push her deal over the finishing line.
A referendum would of course require a vote in Parliament, and possibly an amendment to the EU (Withdrawal) Act to ensure the result supersedes the requirement for a ‘meaningful vote’ on the deal and on the second referendum result itself. The way things look, the Prime Minister would have far more chance in passing these enabling motions than her deal currently has.