Two days, two former prime ministers, two referendums? Tony Blair, in an interview in this week’s NS, and John Major, at a Westminster dinner last night, have lent weight to the view that Brexit can be blocked. Blair said: “It can be stopped if the British people decide that, having seen what it means, the pain-gain cost-benefit analysis doesn’t stack up.” Major argued that there was a “perfectly credible” case for a second vote.
Brexit is certainly blockable in theory. The referendum was not legally binding (the europhile Conservative MP Ken Clarke likes to dismiss it as an “opinion poll”) and, as the High Court recently reaffirmed, parliament is sovereign. If the government loses its appeal against the judges’ decision, MPs could simply vote not to trigger Article 50 (the official means by which a country leaves the EU).
But they won’t. The Conservatives and Labour have both repeatedly pledged to back withdrawal. Though Theresa May supported Remain (albeit reluctantly), she is committed to leaving. To do otherwise would have set her against the overwhelming majority of Tory MPs, activists and voters, and led to the end of her premiership. Unlike David Cameron, May is determined never to be caught on the wrong side of her party’s base.
Jeremy Corbyn also supported Remain (albeit reluctantly) and has never wavered on the need for withdrawal. In last summer’s Labour leadership election, his opponent Owen Smith proposed a second referendum and was defeated 62-38. In a recent speech, John McDonnell went further than Corbyn and declared that the party should be “more positive about Brexit” and “embrace the enormous opportunities” it offers.
Both Corbyn and McDonnell are lifelong eurosceptics, suspected by some in their party of being closet Leavers. But they are not alone in backing Brexit. Their europhile counterparts, such as Chuka Umunna and Stephen Kinnock, also oppose a second vote. Though the country voted 52-48 to Remain, Labour MPs are mindful that 65 per cent of parliamentary constituencies backed Leave. Those in the north and elsewhere, fear a Ukip surge if they seek to block Brexit. At present, 59 per cent of the public believe that a second referendum would be illegitimate.
Around 80 MPs, including Conservative and Labour rebels, the SNP, the Liberal Democrats and the SDLP, will vote not to trigger Article 50. But they are vastly outnumbered by those on the other side. By next year, Article 50 will have been triggered and the UK will likely leave in 2019.
It is possible, as Blair suggests, that “the British people” may turn against Brexit (and equally that they may not). But they would not automatically acquire representation. The Remainers’ best hope is that Labour replaces Jeremy Corbyn with a pro-EU leader – a distant prospect. At present, there is nothing close to a parliamentary majority for a second referendum, a situation unlikely to change before 2019.
A more plausible ambition is blocking “hard Brexit” – defined as withdrawal from the single market. But the EU’s determination to impose harsh divorce terms, and Theresa May’s vow to gain control of free movement, makes even this goal unlikely.
It is hard to conceive of worse political circumstances for the Remainers. Pro-European Tories are a dying breed, Labour is led by an avowed eurosceptic and the europhile Liberal Democrats have just eight MPs. That the charge is being led by former prime ministers is a mark of the Remainers’ weakness, not their strength. Having lost the battle, they look like losing the war.