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25 July 2018

The vote that could stop Brexit

With the Conservatives in chaos, a “People’s Vote” on the final deal is becoming a real possibility. But would a second referendum just make the country more angry and divided?  

By Martin Fletcher

“Iam not very good at despondency,” Chuka Umunna remarks as we chat in his Westminster office one hot, febrile evening shortly before the summer recess. “You can wallow in self-pity and how awful things are, and it is a complete shit-storm here in Westminster. Our politics is as broken and decrepit as that building we work in, which is basically falling apart. But do you sit around while things fall apart, or do you actually change the weather?”

Umunna, the personable 39-year-old Labour MP for Streatham, has chosen the latter course, though he has had death threats and racist abuse. He spearheads the campaign for a “People’s Vote” on any final Brexit deal – the only plausible way to avert what millions regard as a looming catastrophe for Britain. As the government’s efforts to extricate Britain from the EU have reached unprecedented levels of farce, so that campaign has gained traction.

One afternoon in late June more than 100,000 people marched through central London to demand a second ballot. Nearly a quarter of a million people have signed a petition. A recent YouGov poll shows public support for another vote has reached 40 per cent. William Hill has slashed the odds on one happening to just three-to-one. Unite, Britain’s largest trade union, and the left-wing pressure group Momentum are warming to the idea. Tom Watson, Labour’s deputy leader, and Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit secretary, have been careful not to rule it out. Tony Blair, Peter Mandelson, many Labour MPs, a handful of pro-European Tory backbenchers, the Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru and the Greens back it, and the SNP is amenable. Just before the recess Justine Greening, a former education secretary, became the most senior Tory yet to break ranks and join them.

The British Medical Association recently joined the Royal College of Nurses and the Royal College of Midwives in endorsing a People’s Vote, despite the Brexiteers’ mendacious promise in the 2016 referendum of a £350m-a-week windfall for the NHS.

“Six months ago the idea was derided,” says James McGrory, executive director of the pressure group Open Britain. “We were told, ‘Don’t be ridiculous. It’s never going to happen.’ Now it’s in the Westminster lexicon… it’s an idea whose time is coming.”

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William Hague, the Tory grandee, evidently agrees: he has been moved to fulminate against the prospect of a second referendum in the Daily Telegraph. But how would a second ballot come about, what precise question would be put to the British people, and – crucially – who would win are still questions with no clear answers.

Theresa May’s Chequers white paper on Britain’s future relations with Europe advocated a form of “soft Brexit” that won the support of neither Leavers, who considered it a betrayal, nor Remainers, who called it a fudge. Without further concessions it will almost certainly be rejected in Brussels. “I consider it a non-starter, and people I talk to [in Brussels] think so too,” Lord Kerr of Kinlochard, a former British permanent representative to the EU, told me. That means the Prime Minister will probably return to the Commons in November either with no deal, or with one incapable of commanding a parliamentary majority.

The social, economic and political consequences of Britain crashing out of the EU without a deal are so dire that the idea is unthinkable to all but the extreme zealots of the Tory right. But if May did bring back a deal, and it was defeated in the Commons, Britain would be plunged into a constitutional crisis with few obvious precedents.

The Prime Minister could resign, or be ousted by her backbenchers, but either step would trigger a Tory leadership election that would pitch Brexiteers against Europhiles and tear the party apart. Moreover, May’s successor would face the same intractable parliamentary arithmetic.

May could call a general election to seek a mandate for her deal, but that route is also fraught with problems. Under the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act she requires a two-thirds majority to dissolve parliament, and would struggle to persuade her backbenchers to support a move that could easily propel Jeremy Corbyn into Downing Street when the Tories could legitimately remain in power until May 2022. The Prime Minister is a dismal campaigner, her government is in turmoil and a third general election in four years would anger the electorate.

Labour could move a vote of no confidence in the government, hoping that Jacob Rees-Mogg and other Brexit fundamentalists would support it. But not even the fanaticism of those Tories would extend to helping the opposition topple their own prime minister.

A more plausible option is for the government to seek an extension to the 29 March 2019 deadline for Britain’s exit in order to hold further negotiations. Brussels may or may not agree: its patience has been severely tested by two years of British in-fighting, and it has other urgent issues such as migration and eurozone reform to address. Even if it did agree, the chances of achieving a deal that could be sold to parliament would be slight. “Just because you have a longer time doesn’t mean you’re going to find a unicorn,” says Eloise Todd,  chief executive of the pro-European pressure group Best for Britain.

That leaves, by default, the idea of letting the people decide how to proceed. Umunna says that in a secret vote parliament would support the idea because “the overwhelming majority of people sitting in the House of Commons think this [Brexit] is a bloody disaster for this country and they know it”.

But Downing Street has ruled out a new referendum “under any circumstances”, meaning there would be no majority unless Corbyn changed his mind and told Labour’s 258 MPs to join the other opposition parties and a handful of Tory rebels in supporting one. Umunna believes that Corbyn will eventually do just that. As Labour’s party conference approaches, the leader is under mounting pressure from his MPs, Momentum, union backers and party members – particularly the young. “In terms of the debate and atmosphere within the party things are definitely moving towards a People’s Vote,” Umunna says.

Moreover, according to Umunna, Corbyn now recognises that “if we were to take office any time soon there’s no escaping the [economic] disaster that is Brexit, and it could significantly compromise our ability to deliver a Labour programme in government”. A People’s Vote would also spare Labour’s fence-sitting leader from having to choose between his party’s liberal-minded, Remain-backing metropolitan supporters and its more conservative, Brexit-inclined blue-collar backers elsewhere. A second vote would not let MPs off the hook, however, for the same deadlocked parliament would have to approve the legislation required to hold one.

It would have to decide on the potentially contentious issue of spending limits, and on the timing of the ballot, which would take months to organise and conduct. Lord Kerr is confident that the 27 other member states would extend the 29 March withdrawal deadline in such circumstances.

Parliament would have to decide the franchise. This time around, would British citizens who have lived abroad for more than 15 years be able to vote? Or EU citizens who live in Britain and can vote in local elections? Or 16- and 17-year-olds? All are likely Remain voters.

MPs would also have to decide the most vexed issue of all: the precise question to be put to the electorate. Hard-line Brexiteers would probably demand a choice between May’s deal or no deal, arguing that the principle of leaving was settled in 2016’s referendum. Remain activists want a choice between May’s deal and staying in the EU. That would enrage Brexiteers, who oppose both those options, but Will Straw, head of 2016’s official Stronger in Europe campaign, counters that they have produced no plan of their own. “Theresa May as Prime Minister has led the negotiations. If she comes back and says, ‘This is the deal on the table with the EU’ then that by definition is the Brexit deal and the only deal that has legitimacy.”

Justine Greening has proposed a complicated formula used in no previous British referendum. She suggests voters should be given a three-way choice of May’s deal, no deal or remaining in the EU, and asked to state their first and second preferences so votes could be redistributed after the least popular option is eliminated. Others suggest a two-part ballot whereby, for example, voters accept or reject May’s deal and if they reject it, choose between remaining or crashing out. All that is certain is that any formula would be bitterly contested.


The Remainers’ ultimate anxiety would be to win their campaign for a People’s Vote, then lose the vote. That would “settle the issue for a generation, and I can’t see it coming back until after I am dead”, Umunna concedes. The risk of defeat would be real. There has been only a small shift in public opinion since 2016, with most polls showing around 52 per cent support for Remain and 48 per cent for Leave, instead of the other way round. Millions of Britons would be enraged at being asked to vote again. Many would accuse the EU of intransigence and bad faith. People are not necessarily feeling the negative effects of Brexit: the British economy has slowed, but not collapsed.

Umunna and his colleagues are nonetheless confident that they would win because so much else has changed since 2016.

“Last time round it was a choice between the reality of ‘in’ and the fantasy of ‘out’,”  says Hugo Dixon, who produces the daily anti-Brexit newsletter “InFacts”. This time “it will be a choice between the reality of ‘in’ and the reality of ‘out’, and it will be almost impossible for the Brexiteers to project their fantasy, have-cake-and-eat-it, sunlit uplands nonsense.”

The electorate increasingly understands that Brexit would come at a price. Already growth has stalled, investment has slumped, and the extra £350m a week for the NHS has turned into a £40bn divorce bill. In 2016 the Leave campaign dismissed David Cameron and George Osborne’s dire predictions of lost jobs and investment as “Project Fear”, but leading manufacturers such as Airbus, BMW and Jaguar Land Rover are now issuing those warnings.

Young voters, who are predominantly Remainers, would almost certainly turn out in huge numbers in a second vote, while some Brexit-supporting older voters have died. Many of those who voted Leave simply to register a protest, but not thinking it would ever happen, might reconsider.

Meanwhile Donald Trump’s presidency has demonstrated the dangers of Britain seeking to go it alone in a dangerous and unstable world, of burning bridges with our European allies, and of seeking to offset our departure from the world’s largest single market with an elusive US trade deal. “Trump is playing absolutely into our hands,” says Hugo Dixon. The migration crisis that Europe faced in 2015-16 has somewhat abated, and there appears to be a growing realisation that Britain needs immigrants to work in the NHS, pick our vegetables and staff our hotels and restaurants.

 You’re having a laugh: the actor Danny Dyer has mocked the Brexit negotiations.Credit: Julian Finney/Getty

there is another small change in the offing. In November Paul Dacre will step down as editor of the Daily Mail, the paper that fuelled hostility to immigrants and Brussels during the 2016 referendum campaign and which denounces Brexit’s opponents as “enemies of the people”. His replacement, Geordie Greig, is a Remainer. That might not make much difference, but consider this: had just 650,000 voters opted for Remain instead of Leave in 2016, Britain might still be a calm and stable country.

The dynamics of a second vote would be different, too. In 2016 the Remain campaign was led by Downing Street, and the leading Leavers were mostly backbenchers or outsiders. They were “agile, fleet of foot… not responsible for anything”, says Umunna.

This time the roles would be reversed. Leavers are now the establishment; Remainers are the insurgents. “The Brexiteers are responsible for this mess, and charged with delivering on their own impossible promises. They can’t just lie and busk it in the way they did before,” says Umunna. “The energy and enthusiasm is now very much on the pro-European side,” adds Will Straw.

Leading Remainers shy away from discussing their strategy for a second campaign, for fear of appearing arrogant or complacent. Yet instead of a single figurehead such as David Cameron they would probably have a broad leadership team, comprising not just politicians from every party but trade unionists, business people, doctors, student leaders and even, perhaps, celebrities such as the actor Danny Dyer.

“You’ve got to have future generations at the heart of it. It’s got to look and sound like the whole of Britain and not just one part of it. And it’s got to be hopeful and optimistic for the future,” says Umunna. A plethora of pro-European pressure groups, most based in Millbank Tower in Westminster, would provide a campaign infrastructure and tens of thousands of grass-roots activists.

There is a determination to avoid the mistakes of the campaign of 2016, including the failure to address austerity, poor services and other grievances of the millions who felt left behind. Umunna insists the campaign would have to tackle the issue of immigration head-on instead of ignoring it, as David Cameron did.

Hugo Dixon stresses the importance of making a positive case for EU membership, which nobody did in 2016. That would invoke not just tangible benefits, such as health cards, student exchanges and the abolition of roaming charges, but, as part of a bloc, Britain’s enhanced ability to tackle terrorism, climate change, globalisation’s less felicitous consequences and corporate tax avoidance. “You’re not able to do any of that if you’re flying solo,” he argues.

Will Straw stresses the need to make an emotional case for Europe. “People saw ten years of Cameron being disparaging about the EU and saying he wanted reforms and coming back with nothing much at all, and then saying, ‘By the way, we’re going to go to hell in a handcart if we leave’. It didn’t feel credible.” Umunna has that emotional commitment. He has Irish, Danish, French and Spanish relatives, and a one-year-old daughter whose future “massively informs everything I do”. He argues that Britain was hugely influential in Brussels, and that “no one has talked down our country more than the Brexiteers”. But whether Corbyn would campaign actively for Remain this time is anyone’s guess. Though instinctively Eurosceptic, he could hardly back no deal or May’s deal, and a second Remain campaign would not be Tory-led.

The Brexiteers, meanwhile, are divided and in disarray, and would struggle to mount a campaign comparable to that of 2016. Purists such as Boris Johnson, David Davis and Jacob Rees-Mogg have rejected May’s “soft Brexit”, while Michael Gove, Liam Fox and Andrea Leadsom are supporting it (at least for now), seemingly on the basis that quitting the EU is the most important thing and the deal can be unpicked later. Yet it is hard to see any senior Tory figure except for the Prime Minister campaigning enthusiastically for what Dixon calls “the most unloved deal the UK has ever done”. Even May, a Remainer in 2016, could conceivably emulate Harold Wilson in the 1975 referendum on EU membership and opt to stay above the fray.

As for Ukip, its support is inching up and Nigel Farage still enjoys a substantial following – but the party has had six leaders since 2016 and been tarnished by scandal. Arron Banks, who bankrolled Leave.EU in 2016, faces serious questions about his Russian connections. Vote Leave, the official 2016 pro-Brexit group, has just been fined for breaking campaign finance laws.

And what, one wonders, would the Brexiteers’ platform be in a second vote? The “Brexit dividend” for the NHS is a myth. Millions of Turkish migrants have failed to arrive on British shores. Trade negotiations with the EU have not proved to be the “easiest in human history”, as Liam Fox predicted, and few non-EU countries are rushing to strike trade deals with the UK. Far from “taking back control”, Britain has become almost a supplicant nation. Umunna chuckles. “It’s a very good question.”

Martin Fletcher is a New Statesman contributing writer

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This article appears in the 22 Jul 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Summer special