I’ve supported a People’s Vote at every turn, but now I’m backing a December election – here’s why

  • The Liberal Democrats have long pushed for a People’s Vote. But without the numbers in parliament, the only option left for Remainers is to support a general election before the government’s withdrawal bill can pass

  • Chuka Umunna MP

Speech to Lib Dem conference

It has been rare to receive good news during the course of the Brexit process, but this morning the European Union confirmed that it would offer the UK the extension to Article 50, avoiding us crashing out of the EU later this week.

France’s Emmanuel Macron had been holding out on offering the extension due to concerns that it would amount to more gridlock and indecision, and was instead pushing for a shorter extension that would have bound parliament’s hands into backing Boris Johnson’s withdrawal agreement or leaving with no deal at all.

Part of the reason for the change of heart, one EU ambassador told reporters, was the action the Liberal Democrats and SNP took at the weekend. Had we not sent a clear signal that we would use that time constructively to follow our democratic processes to break the gridlock in Westminster, it is not at all certain that we would have been offered the extension MPs requested in the Benn Act.

The Liberal Democrats are the strongest Remain party in the UK, and we have been the loudest, clearest voice in Westminster in favour of a People’s Vote on Brexit with Remain on the ballot. We have tabled 17 amendments and motions to provide for a People’s Vote in this parliament. 

However, at every turn, we have been blocked from doing so by a significant minority of Labour MPs, 19 of which even voted for Boris Johnson’s disastrous hard Brexit, and pro-Brexit Conservative MPs. Just last week we tabled an amendment to the Queen’s Speech calling for a People’s Vote, but due to Labour refusing to support it or even bother to table one itself, no such amendment was chosen by the speaker for debate.

So in a House of Commons without the numbers to pass a People’s Vote, the only option left for Remainers is to support a general election before the government’s withdrawal bill can pass. This is the conclusion both the Liberal Democrats and SNP reached when we made our proposals over the weekend. It is important to note that last week Jeremy Corbyn and Boris Johnson met to discuss how to facilitate the passage of Johnson’s bill through parliament – they did not meet to discuss how legislation for a People’s Vote could be carried.

We are clear, though, that we cannot accept an election on the government’s terms for several reasons. The prime minister’s plan, having invoked the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, would mean that he could retrospectively change the election date until after the new Brexit deadline and there would be no way for MPs legally to stop him. It would also be on the condition that the withdrawal bill is brought back, opening the door to Labour and Conservative MPs passing the bill before the election is called. This is not acceptable, which is why we will be voting against his motion for a 12 December election tonight.

It is for these reasons that our leader Jo Swinson, with the backing of the SNP, published our plan for a December election. Despite MPs from both Labour and the Conservatives dismissing the bill as a “gimmick”, it is now being treated seriously on all sides of the House of Commons.

Our bill would achieve several things if passed this week. 

First, it would set in stone the date of the next election in law for 9 December. This would mean that Boris Johnson could not change the date to after our scheduled exit day. 

Second, the timings in the bill would mean that there would not be time for the government to bring back the withdrawal bill before parliament dissolved later this week. It would effectively halt the Brexit process until the people can have their say. 

Third, it would lock in our extension date of 31 January, and cease to have effect if for any reason this date changed to ensure we could not crash out of the European Union without a deal during a campaign.

If adopted by either of the main parties – who both claim they want an early general election – our plan would be far more certain to pass the Commons, paving the way for a an election in December where Remainers will get our chance to vote for what we have been campaigning for, to remain in the European Union. 

Some in Labour’s shadow cabinet have criticised our move over the weekend – which is rather ridiculous given the party has a live petition on its website (which you can sign here) that says: “Given that Boris Johnson has no mandate from the people, the Tories should call an immediate general election and let the public have their say.” Rather than focusing their fire on the Lib Dems, they should work out what their position on Brexit actually is – after a huge row at their conference, they refused to back remaining in the EU. What they want beyond that is anyone’s guess.

There is no such ambiguity on our side. If there is a Liberal Democrat majority government after the next election, we will revoke Article 50 and end the chaos immediately so we can focus on the real issues. And of course if there is anything short of that, we will continue to push for a People’s Vote, which a majority could be produced for with a new parliament. Either way, our plan represents the best hope Remainers have for stopping Brexit. Let’s make sure when the election starts, we are ready and waiting to campaign for our future in Europe.