By Andrew Woodcock, Press Association Poltical Editor
Campaigners for a second EU referendum have set out a roadmap to obtain a “People’s Vote” giving the public the final say on the outcome of Brexit negotiations.
Published as Theresa May travels to Austria to sell her Brexit plan to EU leaders, the People’s Vote report suggested the Prime Minister could be forced to concede a second referendum by a vote of MPs in Parliament – or may even decide to call one herself.
And it insisted that the option of staying in the EU “must be on the ballot paper”.
In an interview with the Daily Express, the Prime Minister brushed aside the calls for a second referendum, saying voters had made their choice.
“When the referendum took place, we gave people the opportunity to make a choice. They made that choice,” she said.
“This was probably the biggest exercise in democracy in our country’s history. If we were to go back on that vote, it would destroy trust in politicians.
“My answer to the People’s Vote is that we’ve had the people’s vote – it was the referendum – and now we should deliver on it.”
The report – backed by an author of the Article 50 clause which sets out the terms for EU withdrawal – argues that the March 29 2019 deadline for Brexit could easily be delayed to make time for a vote to be held.
And it warned that politicians will be judged harshly if they deny calls for a People’s Vote on the grounds that it would be too difficult to arrange in the short time remaining.
“More than two years since the 2016 referendum, a political, economic and possibly constitutional crisis is gathering across the United Kingdom,” said Article 50 author Lord Kerr of Kinlochard, a former head of the diplomatic service.
“Our view is that the most viable and democratic way of resolving it is to allow the public to have their say on Brexit. To deny them a voice challenges the basic principle of informed consent.”
And he warned: “History will not, in our opinion, be kind to any politician who hides behind purely logistical arguments, legalese or arcane parliamentary procedure in order to deny people a vote on the outcome of these Brexit negotiations at such a fragile and crucial moment for our country.”
With opinion polls regularly finding a majority of voters now think the UK made the wrong decision to Leave in 2016, the People’s Vote report said it was not too late to “think again” about Brexit.
There is “no insurmountable political or procedural obstacle” to putting the two-year Article 50 process on hold to provide time for the necessary legislation and practical arrangements to be put in place for a vote, it said.
And it said a decision to dump Brexit now would be “cost-free”, as the UK could retain its existing EU membership terms – including its budget rebate and exemption from joining the euro – while rejoining years later would require them to be renegotiated from scratch.
Drawn up by a cross-party committee including pro-EU MPs, peers and MEPs from Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats and Greens, the roadmap outlined six possible routes to a fresh referendum, but said others may emerge as events develop.
If Mrs May secures a deal with Brussels this autumn, MPs could use parliamentary amendments to force a referendum either when voting on the deal itself or on later legislation to implement the withdrawal agreement.
If her deal is rejected by the Commons, it would be up to Speaker John Bercow to decide whether to permit MPs to vote on a fresh referendum when she faces Parliament to explain her next steps.
Although the Prime Minister has consistently said that she will not allow a second referendum, the report suggested she may decide that a public vote is the best way to win a mandate for her deal or to escape the “constitutional crisis” of no deal.
“Facing the very real possibility of overseeing a deeply unpopular and potentially disastrous no-deal Brexit, she may decide that the only way to avert this outcome is to put her deal to the public through a People’s Vote,” it said.
The sixth option, of a vote following victory for a pro-referendum party in a snap general election within the next few months, was judged “very unlikely but not inconceivable”.
The roadmap made no recommendation on the question to be asked in any poll, something that would ultimately be a matter for the independent Electoral Commission.
But it said that, for reasons of “simplicity, speed and clarity”, it is likely that a two-way choice – either “the Government’s deal versus stay” or “no deal versus stay” – would be preferred over a multiple choice question.
Any vote should not be delayed by arguments over whether to extend the franchise to include 16 to 18-year-olds and expats or tighten social media rules, it said.
But it said social media companies should be warned they will face tougher regulation in future if they fail to take all actions within their power to prevent abuse of their platforms by campaigns.
Conservative former Brexit Secretary David Davis, asked how likely a second referendum would be if Parliament willed it, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “Pretty unlikely because most people understand to announce a second referendum would be to invite the European Union to give us the worst deal possible in order to persuade us to stay in.
“That’s the consequence of a second referendum and is why it’s a very bad idea – it’s completely against the national interest.”
The ruling Labour group at Hounslow Council has agreed to support a motion pushing for a People’s Vote on the final Brexit deal – with an option to remain in the EU – and urging Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to support it.