October 11, 2019
Referendum numbers are edging up - slowly
Three cheers to Alan Wager, a research associate at the think-tank The UK in a Changing Europe, for having done the actual UK parliament headcount on a second referendum. We have looked at the numbers, too, but not in quite the level of detail he did. The bottom line of his analysis is that the second referendum advocates have been gaining support since April, but probably not enough. One possible consequence of the Johnson-Varadkar meeting yesterday is that the remaining fence-sitters are likely to stay on the fence. The bigger the risk of a no-deal Brexit, the greater the chances of a second referendum.
In his analysis, Wager starts off with 280 MPs who voted in favour of a second referendum in the second indicative vote in April. 292 voted against and 66 abstained, including cabinet ministers.
Of those 66, 11 are still in the cabinet, and another 3 support Brexit. This leaves 52. To get above the hurdle, referendum supporters would need to add 40 out of the 52 in that group.
Is that feasible? Of the 22 Tory MPs whose whip was withdrawn, 9 already voted for the referendum in April, and 3 voted against, leaving 10 MPs as potential switchers from abstaining to favouring a second referendum. Some of those, like Amber Rudd and David Gauke, might well support a second referendum.
Another that also split in the past is the SNP, with four of its MPs abstaining.
And finally, there is the group of 16 Labour MPs who abstained. Some of those are now in favour of a second referendum, but not all of them. Wager adds it all up and arrives at a number of 25 potential switchers. This would bring the total up from the previous 280 to 305, still 15 MPs short of a majority. We think this is an optimistic number, more of a ceiling than an average. There are Labour MPs who also want to get Brexit over and done with. And we are not sure that a Brexit referendum is in the SNP's best interest either.
Wager's conclusion is that a second referendum is possible but only if the still loyal one-nation Tory MPs were to rebel on the issue and risk expulsion. We think the high point for that has passed.
Wager makes another interesting point. If a referendum were passed with a tiny majority, it is far from clear that it could be implemented with active government support. In other words, you may still need a change in government. Several issues would require primary legislation - like the referendum question, the franchise, various rules and the referendum date. Would the majority still hold, we wonder? A referendum would require a budget allocation. Wager said it would be theoretically possible, but difficult, to drive the entire process from the back benches.