Until recently, Remainers had few reasons to be cheerful. A “hard Brexit” government had been undefeated in the Commons, public opinion was little change from the 2016 referendum and Tory rebels were notably quiescent.
But Britain’s pro-Europeans now believe, as one senior MP put it, that “the wind is in our sails.” The creation of a new anti-Brexit umbrella group (the Grassroots Coordinating Group), led by Chuka Umunna and representing 500,000 members, both reflects and reinforces this shift.
The once-taboo subject of a second referendum (or a “first referendum on the facts”) has been legitimised by Nigel Farage’s surprise intervention and increasing public support. For months, an increasing number of voters viewed Brexit as “wrong”, rather than “right” (by a record margin of 46-40). There was little sign, however, that the public wished to see the result overturned. But an ICM/Guardian poll, which found voters favoured a second referendum by 16 points, provided Remain with crucial ballast – as did Farage. “His ego got the better of him because he handed a massive strategic win to pro-European Remainers,” an MP told me. “Every time you’re accused of thwarting the will of people you just go ‘well, Nigel Farage has said do this’. It has provided cover.”
Remainers were also aided by Andrew Adonis’s unearthing of Jacob Rees-Mogg’s past support for a second referendum (“We could have two referendums. As it happens, it might make more sense to have the second referendum after the renegotiation is completed,” the Conservative MP said in 2011). Though Labour’s stance has not changed, Jeremy Corbyn is now regularly confronted by polls showing party members overwhelmingly favour membership of the single market, and the customs union and support a new vote. If Corbynism is about empowering activists, he is asked, why don’t you give them what they want? (And Labour has notably refused to rule out backing a second referendum.)
Outside of government, Remainers no longer feel encumbered by their “establishment” status. As one said: “We’re able to be agile and fleet of foot in the way that the Leave campaign was in 2016, whereas they are the ones now in a straitjacket. The straitjacket is of government: they can’t busk it and be economical with the truth because they can end up in the situation of David Davis, of potentially facing contempt proceedings for misleading the House of Commons. And as they are charged with implementing Brexit, the myths that they sold are being exposed.”
In these conditions, Tory Remainers and Leavers have become increasingly rebellious. For the first time in her premiership, Theresa May has endured sustained attacks from the Brexiteers (led by Rees-Mogg) as her actions, if not always her words, point to a softer Brexit. Since defeating the government last December on the need for a “meaningful vote” on the final deal, Remainers have similarly become more openly critical of the project (Anna Soubry has backed a second vote and justice minister Phillip Lee warned that the government needed to rely on “evidence, not dogma” in response to the leaked Brexit forecasts).
Such are the Conservatives’ epic divisions that some believe a second vote may yet prove the only way to answer the Europe Question. Like David Cameron and Jim Callaghan, May (or a new Tory leader) may have to climb into what Callaghan called the “little life raft” of a referendum. Remainers would be wise not to assume they would win a new contest (or that one will take place at all). But more than at any time since 23 June 2016, they have credible grounds for hope.