Hilary Benn: A second referendum may be the only way to break the Brexit deadlock

Posted On: 
17th December 2018

Parliament must have a series of votes on all the Brexit options. If there is no alternative deal that can win the support of MPs, then the only way to resolve this may be to go back to the British people, writes Hilary Benn

The choice on any ballot paper could be whether the Prime Minister’s withdrawal deal is what those who voted leave actually support or whether the British people want to remain in the European Union, writes Hilary Benn
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Our country is facing a crisis.

The Prime Minister hasn’t even put her Brexit deal to Parliament because she knows that it would be defeated. Yet she continues to claim that the only choice is between her deal and no deal, even though everyone knows just how damaging leaving without a deal would be to the British economy and to jobs. Parliament won’t allow it to happen and no responsible government would contemplate it. So, why go on pretending? MPs should now be given the chance to vote on the Prime Minister’s deal and on whether we want to reject no deal. Once we know what isn’t going to happen then we can turn our attention, as we must urgently do, to how we get out of this mess.

The House of Commons has had an obligation to give effect to the result since the June 2016 referendum even though it is increasingly clear that the type of Brexit promised – keep all the good bits and get rid of the rest – simply does not exist. Those who campaigned to leave reject the Prime Minister’s deal but cannot agree amongst themselves what kind of Brexit they do want. Canada? Norway? An “orderly” WTO withdrawal – whatever that means. Or a slam the door and walk away, shouting “you can forget about your money” Brexit?

Parliament’s task is now therefore to try to find out whether there is a Brexit agreement that could command support from a majority of MPs. The best way to do this would be to hold a series of votes on the options. This needs to happen as a matter of urgency because there is a very little time left. In any event, it is almost certain that we will have to extend Article 50 to give ourselves some breathing space. 

If it turns out that there is no alternative deal that can win a majority in the House of Commons, then I think it is increasingly likely that the only way we will resolve this is to go back to the British people. Indeed, it would not surprise me if the Prime Minister were to do this if her deal is defeated in the House of Commons.

The choice on any ballot paper could be whether the Prime Minister’s withdrawal deal is what those who voted leave actually support or whether the British people want to remain in the European Union.

In the last two and a half years, we have learned that the assurances given by those who campaigned to leave the EU – that ‘we will hold all the cards’ and this will be one of the ‘easiest trade deals in history’ – were empty and meaningless. It is now clear that we will never negotiate a trade deal that is as good as the one we currently have and that leaving the EU without an agreement would be a disaster.

If there was ever a time for each one of us, whether MPs or citizens, to be honest with ourselves and one another about the real choice we face, then it is now. The Government is divided and so is the country. Time is running out. And this is the moment for Parliament to take back control and provide the leadership that is desperately needed. 

Hilary Benn is Labour MP for Leeds Central and chair of the Brexit Select Committee