May's U-Turn On Facebook -- And Europe Too

It is hard to underestimate the tumultuous day in British politics yesterday, but there are two things to track here. Not only is the "People's Vote" that adland would so dearly love inching nearer, but Theresa May could be seen as having done a U turn on both her deal and Facebook.

It emerged this morning that the Government had spent very nearly GBP100k on Facebook ads recently in a bid to make social media users back the PM's deal. Apparently, the ads appeared 5m times in the past week alone, although it's not clear how many MPs were exposed to the message. It is MPs, after all, who have the say in this next chapter in the unfolding saga of Brexit.

Eagle-eyed readers may well remember how much press attention has been given to the government calling out Facebook (and, for balance, Google/YouTube too) for not doing enough to protect young people, not dealing with fake news properly, not killing off the Russian trolls and bots quickly enough and generally being such a bad corporate citizen that a new form of taxation will have to be invented to squeeze some cash from its huge coffers.

Facebook has a long rap sheet in Government circles and it wasn't helped when Mark Zuckerberg declined another invitation to defend the business at a recent parliamentary committee session, resulting in him being publicly empty-chaired.

The upshot: when Theresa May has an unworkable, unsellable Brexit deal on her hands, who does she turn to to help push it? Facebook.

It has to be said that a GBP100k budget and 5 million impressions in the last week alone is not an insignificant campaign. I would wager that would put the Government at or near the top of a league table of who has spend the most on Facebook in the UK during the last week or two. 

It puts the Government in an awkward position of potential double standards. It has been hauling Facebook over the proverbial coals for the past couple of years, and a group of influential MPs even told brands they should boycotting social media channels if they do not behave more responsibly.

How does the PM deal with Zuckerberg's empire? She throws GBP100k at it in the hope it might help her deal get through.

It's a little like sending out your chums to tell the world's press and their constituents that you have a winnable vote that will definitely happen, only to make them look like fools when you cancel it the next day.

There is absolutely no chance of May's deal being passed by Parliament. She has bought herself a week to get some reassurances on the language of the text of the deal but no concessions.

Expect to see some fudged reassurance about the Irish backstop not being permanent wrapped up in references to the legality of the Article 50 clause the UK has triggered to leave the UK. Then read the wording of May's deal and realise that the EU is sharing the decision over whether Northern Ireland is ever allowed out of a backstop arrangement. That is why the deal will never be sellable.

So, as predicted in the London Blog a couple of weeks ago, Theresa May is as good as gone -- but the Conservative Party doesn't dare risk an election. They are aided in this by the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act that mandates parliaments run for the full five years unless two in three MPs vote for a new election or if a vote of no confidence is passed and it is not nullified by a retaliatory vote of confidence within two weeks.

Neither is likely because the Conservatives would simply immediately replace Theresa May and a new leader will make sufficient promises to ensure Conservative MPs are not the proverbial turkey that votes for Christmas.

If it comes down to it, they would need the Democratic Unionist Party to get them through a second vote of confidence, and that would have to mean dropping the clause that gives the EU equal say in whether Northern Ireland remains in the Customs Union and Single Market, should a trade deal not be reached.

This means the alternative surely must be to postpone exiting the EU next spring and throw the question back to the country in a second referendum. Sure, it will cause outrage that it seems disrespectful to the original vote -- but it will also allow a more informed second vote to be held.

If Leave supporters feel the EU had treated the country badly in negotiations, then surely that can only mean they will win by a wider margin. If the public truly does feel duped by Leave promises, then Remain might win the day.

Adland has reason to begin getting excited here. It's a liberal profession, and my reading is that the majority are Remainers who don't want the upset of Brexit disrupting markets and potentially restricting access to a nearby talent pool.

Theresa May has kicked the proverbial can down the alley yet another time this week, but soon enough a choice has to be made. Parliament is frozen. There is talk of a Norway Plus deal, but it will struggle because it takes away a country's representation in Brussels yet still enforces them to accept the rules it has had no part in shaping.

Parliament won't pass her deal, the alternatives looks bleak and come with no better chance of being approved and yet the Government will do all it can to avoid a general election. The only answer is surely to give adland the Christmas present of a second referendum.

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