Evening Standard comment: A referendum is coming – just ask Oliver Letwin


Who’s the most powerful politician in Britain? Usually it’s the Prime Minister. But not always, and not today.

Thanks to his mistakes of the past fortnight, Boris Johnson has made himself the prisoner of Parliament. He can’t go forward, can’t retreat and can’t call an election.

Sometimes power lies with an Opposition leader on course for Downing Street — think Tony Blair in 1996 and David Cameron in 2009. But Jeremy Corbyn is an impediment to his party’s victory and an obstacle to it forming a government with Lib Dem and SNP support.

So who’s calling the shots these days?

Step forward the unlikely figure of Sir Oliver Letwin, interviewed by the Evening Standard today.

Don’t be beguiled by his impeccable manners and self-effacing charm. This one-time Tory loyalist — described by Mr Cameron as his “real Deputy Prime Minister” — is now at the centre of the rebel alliance that holds in its hands the fate of the Government, the timing of the election and the future of Brexit.

There are others worth mentioning in dispatches — the Grieves, Benns, Gaukes, Coopers, Boleses and Hammonds. But it has been Sir Oliver — who has brought that combination of razor-sharp intellect, long experience of high office and an inexhaustible willingness to listen to others — that has held together and steered this disparate group.

As he says today, in politics “what takes time is not drafting or procedure but getting a consensus among people of widely varying allegiances”.

He took the trouble and endless hours of patience required to do that, where Theresa May, and now Mr Johnson, did not.

The result? Sir Oliver, with his colleagues, is now in charge of what happens next. So it is worth paying close attention to what he tells us today.

First, he is clear that the Brexiteers have a clear and simple path to their cherished goal of leaving the EU. They need to vote for a deal agreed with Brussels, as he did on three occasions. If Mr Johnson presents a new deal, Sir Oliver will be back on side.

Second, there is no way Britain will leave without a deal.

Sir Oliver and his alliance have made sure of that. His law will force the Government to seek an extension to our EU membership.

He’s confident he’s closed off all other escape routes the geniuses in Downing Street dreamt up in the war games that led to their inept decision to prorogue Parliament. Note too, in his interview, Sir Oliver’s quiet insistence that Number 10 will be forced to disclose its confidential messages that informed that decision, or “be found in contempt of Parliament”.

That could prove that the PM lied to the Cabinet and the Queen, which he today denies.

One step ahead

But third, and most interestingly, Sir Oliver today reveals that he thinks “we need to resolve this issue of Brexit before there is a general election”.

If that cannot be achieved through a deal to leave, then there will have to be a referendum. This is a crucial new development.

The Tory high command have assumed that if they can’t have a general election on their preferred timetable before October 31, they could have one in November or December — and they could still cast it as a “Parliament versus the people” contest. But Sir Oliver is one step ahead of them.

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He is confident that there is a majority in Parliament for dealing with Brexit first and having an election after.

So if the Commons doesn’t support a deal — and all the evidence of the last year suggests it won’t — then it will vote to delay an election until 2020, and have a referendum before that.

Whether Mr Johnson is still imprisoned in Downing Street while this happens is a secondary question.

If the Prime Minister wants to get back in the game he’d propose a referendum himself. If he doesn’t, then another option becoming more and more likely is for this Tory government to be brought down, and an interim government to take office in its place.

It would probably have to be led by a Labour MP, but draw support from across other parties.

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The interim prime minister could not be Mr Corbyn (as Sir Oliver cryptically points out) but would need the Labour leader’s support.

Much of this will crystallise in the next few weeks, after the Labour conference.

Sir Oliver won’t be there. But he’ll be doing what he’s been doing for the past year — steering things behind the scenes.

For real power comes to those prepared to share it.

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Read more Tory rebel Letwin: This is about the fate of our fellow countrymen