‘It’s ridiculous’ - the internecine war between backers of a People’s Vote and a Norway-style Brexit

Posted On: 
21st January 2019

Supporters of a second referendum and a Norway Plus Brexit want to prevent a no deal EU exit. But their factional dispute is not helping with that endeavour, writes Sebastian Whale

With Brexit, unanimity is a pipe dream. But common ground, wherever it is found, should be nurtured, writes Sebastian Whale
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Internecine warfare has slowly been breaking out between politicians whose views on Brexit are largely in conjunction. Both supporters of a so-called People’s Vote and a Norway-style exit from the European Union want to prevent the UK from leaving without a deal. Each, if given the choice, would rather see a softer Brexit than one cultivated with the most feverish member of the European Research Group in mind. And yet these politicians, whose underlying beliefs overlap on many issues, have decided to aim their fire at one another.

“It’s ridiculous,” Labour’s Lucy Powell, a supporter of the Common Market 2.0 campaign, told me last week. She said it was “regrettable” that her colleagues had chosen to disparage the Norway Plus option as part of their campaigning for a second EU referendum. “I believe that in the context we’re in at the moment where you’ve got parliament in absolute deadlock, this massive crisis for our country, we’re heading towards a no deal Brexit with all the challenges that come with that, we need more options on the table, not fewer options,” she added.

A running theme has emerged when you speak to MPs from each faction. Backers of Common Market 2.0, the Norway Plus option which would keep the UK in the single market and customs union, will use their opposition to a second referendum as part of their explanation of how they came to back a softer Brexit. Conversely, supporters of another plebiscite will outline why they view the Norway Plus option as unworkable before drawing the conclusion that a People’s Vote is the only way out of the quagmire.

The fact that MPs feel the need to qualify their opposition to the alternative is telling.

The reasoning for this tactic, though arguably deeply detrimental to their overarching aims, is self-evident – each campaign is seeking to stake a claim to being the pathway of choice for more Europhile MPs.

Writing in The House magazine last month, Labour MP Luciana Berger warned the Norway Plus option would leave Britain “shivering in the frozen arctic tundra”. She argued “such an ill-thought through plan” does not deserve to be supported by MPs, adding: “It would leave the UK as a rule-taker, having to obey laws made in Brussels with no say over any of them. And people who voted for Brexit thinking it would increase control would be right to ask: what’s the point?”

Speaking to The House last week, Labour MP Stephen Kinnock, who backs the Norway Plus option, said: “One of the things we do really need to hear from the second referendum campaigners is what’s the question on the ballot paper. The result of the [meaningful] vote makes a material difference to that conversation, because is it really credible to have Remain versus the Prime Minister’s deal when the Prime Minister’s deal has just been absolutely thumped in parliament? That would reduce parliament to a laughing stock. I don’t think that it’s justifiable to have no deal on the ballot paper.”

The attacks continued over the weekend, with fellow Labour MPs David Lammy and Bridget Phillipson also using articles in the Observer and Independent respectively to take issue with the Norway Plus option (the former said voters would feel “betrayed"). Nick Boles, the Tory MP who’s most closely associated with the Norway Plus option, suggested People’s Vote backers had peddled “lies and distortions” about his favoured Brexit outcome. “Why is @peoplesvote_hq obsessed with dissing Common Market 2.0 and Norway Plus?” he mused on Twitter.

The curious thing about this factional dispute is that members of each tribe have said privately and publicly that they could migrate towards the other in given circumstances. Powell, who confesses to being “worried and sceptical” about a second vote, told me: “I personally feel like I’ve been quite assiduous in not briefing against a second referendum because there are circumstances where I could see myself voting for that. I don’t want to have to do a big volte-face.” A supporter of a so-called People’s Vote also told me they and others could come out for a Norway Plus option, should the option look like passing in Parliament.

With Brexit, unanimity is a pipe dream. But common ground, wherever it is found, should be nurtured.

It is now a cliché to say that parliament knows what it is against, but not what it is for. Supporters of the Norway Plus option and a second referendum do not want Britain to leave the European Union empty-handed. The more they undermine their respective alternative plans, however, the more currency they give to a no deal Brexit.