The People’s Vote campaign can stop pretending now. For months they’ve peddled the fiction that their role was to secure a second referendum. But last week the charade was finally exposed. Their aim is not to deliver a People’s Vote. It’s to shore up Jeremy Corbyn’s vote, and deliver him the keys to Downing Street.
‘They’ve been hijacked by Labour,’ a senior Remain-supporting MP explained to me. ‘The campaign is now being used as a tool to save the Labour Party.’
A very blunt tool. Last Thursday, agreement had been reached between the main English Remain parties – Change UK, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens – to run a joint candidate in the Peterborough by-election. The person selected was prominent People’s Vote activist Femi Oluwole.
Then, a couple of hours before the pact was due to be announced, Oluwole pulled out. ‘Femi was put under relentless pressure by senior Labour supporters in the campaign,’ an MP explained. ‘He was told he risked letting in Nigel Farage, undermining the chances of delivering a second referendum and even that there would be legal problems.’
Asked specifically if he had been placed under heavy manners by former Labour spin doctors Alastair Campbell and Tom Baldwin to withdraw, Oluwole gave the rather oblique reply ‘not really’. Labour responded by calling the allegation ‘bizarre’.
There is certainly something bizarre about the Peterborough debacle. Those who claim to be campaigning for a second referendum stepped in to block a second referendum candidate from winning the seat.
They did so to protect the seat for Labour, a party that steadfastly refuses to support a second referendum. And they did it under the pretext of stopping Farage’s ‘divisive’ Brexit Party.
Even though the beneficiaries would be a party facing investigation by the Equality and Human Rights Commission and the Metropolitan Police, and defending a seat left vacant when its sitting MP was jailed and recalled by her electors for perverting the course of justice.
People’s Vote has protested its innocence. ‘A potential candidate for the Peterborough by-election has decided not to stand for their own reasons,’ said a spokesman.
But the evidence of collaboration with Corbyn is abundant. Take the mysterious People’s Vote Test website – that lets voters check which parties support a second referendum – launched two weeks ago. According to the campaign, its purpose was to ‘increase pressure on Labour ahead of its crunch NEC meeting on Tuesday to match pledges made by the SNP, the Liberal Democrats, Change UK, the Green Party and Plaid Cymru to back a People’s Vote’.
Corbyn refused to match those pledges. At which point People’s Vote opted to pretend Labour had passed its test anyway. Type your postcode in the search engine, and you’ll be encouraged to vote Labour alongside the real Remain parties. Like everything to do with Brexit, the reasons for this appeasement are complex. Part of it is base tribalism. Campbell and Baldwin have huge influence over the campaign, and are proud members of the ‘Labour till I die’ camp.
There are those who still naively believe Corbyn can be nudged, coddled and cajoled into backing a second referendum and that lines of communication need to be kept open to him. There are even some members of People’s Vote who cling to the hope it can ultimately be used to dethrone Corbyn. The People’s Vote database has been described to me as ‘the flint that will spark the revolution’ that ends his leadership.
And then there is the real reason. Which is that the People’s Vote campaigners are cowards. For all their bravado and bombastic pledges they are as scared of Corbyn as everyone else. When it comes to beating on a battered and broken Theresa May, the People’s Vote macho men are happy to flex and preen. But when confronted by Labour’s leader – and his stubborn refusal to concede a single substantive inch to their second referendum demands – they vacillate and cower.
That is why they are now using Farage as their human shield. ‘We need to beat Farage,’ they whisper, ‘and the only way to do that is to vote Labour.’
Think of the logic that lies behind this argument; that an outcome in which Labour defeats the Brexit Party in the European elections will convince Corbyn he urgently needs to change his Brexit policy.
It is lunacy, and the People’s Vote campaigners know it. They are well aware the only thing that will convince Corbyn to alter his stance on Brexit is if Labour are smashed on May 23. A haemorrhaging of votes to parties that actually support a second referendum would create an explosion even he and his Momentum acolytes couldn’t contain.
But an explosion is not what the People’s Vote leaders – or at least those with close links to Labour – want. They are terrified they will be caught by the shrapnel. As one Shadow Minister told me: ‘Corbyn’s got them where he wants them.’ He has. Over the days to come lip service will be paid to the idea of ‘making a statement’ in the European elections.
There will be guarded warnings about the price Corbyn might pay if he doesn’t throw a few more crumbs to Remain voters. And then the People’s Vote campaign will fall back into line. May will be replaced. A more Eurosceptic PM will enter Downing Street. And the second referendum campaigners will return to telling everyone: ‘It’s either Labour or a No Deal Brexit. What choice do we have?’
They can stop pretending now. The People’s Vote is really Jeremy Corbyn’s vote. And it always was.