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30 November 2016

The Remainers aim to beat Brexit by playing a long game

Many MPs who hope for a second referendum are keeping their powder dry. 

By George Eaton

In the aftermath of the EU referendum, the Leavers had no plan for victory. The Remainers had no plan for defeat. Brexit’s meaning was deferred as both the Conservatives and Labour were absorbed by leadership contests.

In Theresa May, the Leavers found a new figurehead. As a “reluctant Remainer”, she made the transition with ease. The pro-Europeans, however, were left with no equivalent. Jeremy Corbyn comfortably defeated his Labour opponent Owen Smith, who had promised a second EU referendum. Sadiq Khan and the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon are regionally restricted. The anti-Brexit Liberal Democrats have just eight MPs.

The Remainers are still a leaderless tribe. Yet in the courts, in parliament and in the media, they have acquired the representation that they previously lacked. The businesswoman Gina Miller (who launched the Brexit legal challenge), the shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, and the New European newspaper have emerged to fill the post-referendum void.

If, as expected, the government loses its appeal against Miller’s case, MPs will secure a vote on whether to invoke Article 50. The SNP, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens’ co-leader Caroline Lucas and Northern Ireland’s SDLP will all oppose doing so. They will be joined by a small number of Labour rebels and perhaps just one Conservative (the reliably Europhile Ken Clarke). Labour MPs have been deluged by emails from party members threatening to resign if they walk through the Leave lobby. One backbencher predicted that the revolt would grow as “the awfulness of it [EU withdrawal] sinks in”. But parliament will not block Brexit.

Pro-EU Conservative MPs fear deselection by Tory activists. Their Labour counterparts fear deselection by the electorate. Although 48 per cent of voters backed Remain, only 35 per cent of parliamentary constituencies did. The new Ukip leader, Paul Nuttall, aims to exploit any softness on Brexit. Even Labour MPs with majorities weighed, rather than counted, fear being swept away. “Outside of London, there is no such thing as a safe seat,” one Labour MP told me. Were MPs to obstruct Brexit, the result would be an early general election and, most likely, an increased Conservative majority (an ICM poll published on 29 November put the Tories 16 points ahead of Labour).

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Some predict that public opinion will move once the economic consequences of leaving the EU are felt. The proposal of a second referendum, recently endorsed by Tony Blair and John Major, stems from this belief. Few Remainers, however, are prepared to follow their lead. To question the people’s will at this juncture, they warn, reinforces every stereotype about the pro-European cause: elitist, undemocratic and remote.

Political objections to a second referendum are accompanied by technical ones. As the Labour MP Stephen Kinnock has said, any vote in 2019 would merely be on the terms of divorce (“a relatively minor piece of the Brexit puzzle”), not the UK’s new relationship with Europe (addressing trade and immigration). It would likely be too soon for the public to declare the project a failure.

Rather than seeking to stop Brexit, most Remainers are attempting to soften it. The Stronger In campaign has morphed into Open Britain, a group committed to maintaining single market membership. On 28 November, for the first time since the referendum, a cross-party coalition of MPs (the Lib Dem Nick Clegg, the Tory Anna Soubry and Labour’s Chuka Umunna) appeared under its banner. In the era of Brexit, Leave and Remain could become a more salient divide than left and right.

Single market withdrawal would come at an economic price. Yet for both May and the EU, politics is taking precedence. The Prime Minister’s vow to control free movement and to end the supremacy of the European Court of Justice is incompatible with remaining in the single market. Her European counterparts fear that a generous deal for Britain would only strengthen insurgent nationalists such as France’s Marine Le Pen.

This alignment of interests is pushing the UK towards a hard exit – but the Remain resistance is gathering strength. The campaign group British Influence is seeking a judicial review of whether the UK’s membership of the European Economic Area – which allows non-EU members such as Norway to operate inside the single market – would automatically end with Brexit. Should the government again be defied by the courts, MPs will win a vote on this defining question. There is a latent parliamentary majority for single market membership. At some point, Brexiteers fear, it will be unlocked.

A separate confrontation is looming over whether the UK will agree to a transitional deal or tumble over what May called the “cliff edge” in her Confederation of British Industry speech last month. Tory Remainers such as the former education secretary Nicky Morgan and the former attorney general Dominic Grieve hope to create the political space for May to compromise. Around the cabinet table, they hope that Philip Hammond, Amber Rudd and Damian Green will prevail against the three Brexiteers, David Davis, Liam Fox and Boris Johnson.

In public, few Remainers dare to give voice to the thought that the UK may never leave the EU. In private, far more confess that they hope and believe that the status quo could endure. In this regard, they now resemble the Leavers of old. Until the referendum, few Brexiteers publicly declared that the UK should depart from the EU. Borrowing a Trotskyist tactic, they made demands incompatible with continued membership. The call for a “soft Brexit” derives, in part, from a similar logic. The Leavers won by playing a long game. The Remainers hope to triumph by doing the same.

This article appears in the 30 Nov 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage