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The plot to stop Brexit

How Remainers of all parties are planning to keep the UK in the EU – and why they believe they will win. 

On the evening of 5 December, among the five-star splendour of London’s Jumeirah Carlton Tower hotel, 300 of Britain’s most senior EU supporters will assemble for the “Exit from Brexit Dinner”. For the price of £200 (£2,000 for a table of ten), guests will hear from speakers including the former deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, the Labour MP Chuka Umunna and the former Conservative minister Anna Soubry. The dinner will conclude at 11pm – the hour at which Britain is due to leave the European Union 479 days later.

In the months following the June 2016 referendum, Brexit was regarded as near-inevitable. Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn – both “reluctant Remainers” – immediately accepted the Leave vote. On 1 February this year, MPs voted by 498 to 114 to grant May the power to trigger Article 50. Two months later, the Prime Minister formally initiated Britain’s EU departure. She was never so powerful again.

At the general election in June, the Conservatives lost their hard-won parliamentary majority. Rather than strengthening her hand in the Brexit negotiations, May had weakened it. Five months after the talks began, the EU has yet to open discussions on a new UK trade deal. May has been forced to concede that there will be a two-year “transition period” from 29 March 2019, the date set for the UK to leave the EU, during which little will change. But in Europe, as well as in Britain, there is an increasing belief that the UK may not, in the end, leave.

After the shock of the referendum result, Remain MPs have regrouped. The All-Party Parliamentary Group on EU Relations, founded by Umunna in July and co-chaired by Soubry, is the main vehicle for their activities. Amendments to the government’s EU Withdrawal Bill have been meticulously co-ordinated to ensure maximum impact (the MPs use a WhatsApp group and often meet in Umunna’s office).

Remainers boast the media savvy of Umunna, the lawyerly expertise of Dominic Grieve (a former attorney general), the economic nous of Nicky Morgan (the Treasury select committee chair) and the rhetorical firepower of Soubry. Though most state that they are merely opposed to “hard Brexit” (defined as UK withdrawal from the EU single market and the customs union), they are alive to the possibility of halting Brexit altogether.

Beyond Westminster, some of Britain’s most senior politicians have opened back channels to Brussels. On 30 October, to the consternation of Brexiteers, Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, met Nick Clegg, the former Labour cabinet minister Andrew Adonis and the veteran Tory backbencher Ken Clarke. During their Brussels meeting, Clegg impressed upon Barnier how “extraordinarily fragile and febrile” British politics was. Barnier, who had met with Jeremy Corbyn for 80 minutes earlier in the month, is mindful that the Conservative government could collapse. Out of chaos, the EU hopes, order may yet emerge. “What was clear from my meetings in Brussels is that they desperately want us to stay,” Adonis told me. “I didn’t meet a single person who thought that the EU would be better off without us.”

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If Remainers have refused to accept the referendum result, it is partly because they know that their opponents would have done the same in different circumstances. Back in 2016, Nigel Farage warned that a 52-48 Remain victory (the margin by which Leave won) would be “unfinished business by a long way”. EU supporters cite the words of Brexit Secretary David Davis in 2012: “If a democracy cannot change its mind, it ceases to be a democracy.”

The vote for Brexit was a disruptive moment for the British parliament: the first time that a national referendum had rejected the status quo. Remainers, however, refuse to treat the result as sacrosanct. “The 23 June 2016 [vote] was not an Old Testament chiselled in stone, which has cast an immutable spell on the United Kingdom,” Clegg told me, “because the facts have changed so dramatically since.”

The post-referendum recession forecast by the Treasury has been avoided, yet the UK is no longer the fastest-growing G7 economy but the slowest. EU trade talks, which Liam Fox promised would be “the easiest in human history”, have yet to begin. And Leavers have disavowed the promise of an extra £350m a week for the NHS. “Would we have won without £350m/NHS?” Dominic Cummings, the Vote Leave campaign director, asked. “All our research and the close result strongly suggests no.”

For others, the greatest risk is that the UK will be permanently marginalised as a world power. Michael Heseltine, the 84-year-old former deputy prime minister and Conservative peer, fulminated against this prospect when I met him at his London offices. “I simply can’t contemplate with equanimity the idea of the president of the United States, the prime minister of India, the president of China, flying into Berlin, Paris, to discuss major international events hosted by the European Union, with Britain waiting to be told what the communiqué says. It is about influence and power and top tables. In the Britain in which I was brought up, the essential feature of self-interest was that we should be where the decisions were taken.”

Peter Mandelson, the EU trade commissioner from 2004 to 2008, is concerned that after Brexit Britain would become “a satellite of the US economy”. “To compete with the EU, we will be led inexorably down the path of a less-taxed, less-regulated business environment,” he told me. “The economy may be more globalised, in reality more American, but the public will become less protected. And that’s been the project of the Brexiteers from the outset.”

Remainers argue that Brexit need not prove disastrous to be rejected. That Leavers have failed to keep their lavish promises is sufficient. Umunna, a former shadow business secretary, drew a vivid analogy when we met in his Commons office. “You thought you were sitting in some shiny new Audi but it’s actually some clapped-out banger. It might get you from A to B but it’s not moving in the way you thought it would. Do you really want to buy this car?”

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The public is showing some signs of remorse. A recent YouGov poll found that a record number of voters (47 per cent) believed that the UK had been wrong to vote to leave the EU, compared to 42 per cent who believed that it had been right. But it does not follow that a near-majority of the public wants Brexit stopped. When offered a menu of options, 40 per cent backed the government’s current stance, while 12 per cent preferred a “softer” Brexit. Only 18 per cent supported a second referendum and just 14 per cent wanted Brexit stopped. Like British holidaymakers stuck in a poor hotel or on a rainy beach, voters appear resigned to making the best of it.

Most MPs take a similar view. Though only ten Labour backbenchers and 138 Conservatives publicly supported Leave, a majority of MPs in both parties now profess to favour Brexit. To reject the referendum result, they fear, would only deepen voters’ mistrust of Westminster. The Labour MP Caroline Flint, who voted Remain but whose Don Valley constituency backed Leave (as a majority of Labour seats did), told me: “What I often hear from both Leave and Remain voters is, ‘Stop the bickering and get on with it.’”

The former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis, who was pivotal in persuading Jeremy Corbyn to campaign for Remain, said: “To try to reverse Brexit through a second referendum is to do to the British people what Brussels did to the Irish with the Lisbon Treaty: keep repeating the question until they deliver ‘the right answer’.”

Picture: Ben Jennings

For some, a “soft Brexit” represents an elegant compromise. Under this scenario, the UK would leave the EU’s political institutions but remain in the single market and the customs union. Soft Brexiteers believe that this would minimise economic disruption, resolve the Irish border dilemma and respect the referendum result. However, Leavers and some Remainers warn that this would deny the UK adequate control of free movement of EU workers into the country. “The easy supply of labour has let some employers off the hook,” Flint said. “It’s allowed the debate about the workforce Britain needs to be undeveloped.”

Europhiles similarly regard soft Brexit as a feeble third way. “It’s fax diplomacy: you get told what the deal is,” said Heseltine. “This was the dilemma that Margaret Thatcher faced, and nobody would call her a Europhile. But she was a British prime minister and the idea that the rules would be created by the French and the Germans, largely to suit their own economic self-interest, was wholly unacceptable to her, and she was quite right. There’s no compromise: you’re either in or you’re out.”

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Remainers do not disguise their predicament. They know they are up against an overwhelmingly pro-Brexit Conservative Party, a Labour Party led by the lifelong Eurosceptic Corbyn, and a stubborn public. But in view of the political volatility of recent years, they are not resigned to defeat. “The first hurdle we have to overcome is the misperception that Article 50 is an inevitable process. It’s not,” Umunna said.

In a speech delivered on 10 November, John Kerr, a former Foreign Office diplomat and the author of Article 50, emphasised: “Mrs May’s letter was only a notification of the UK’s ‘intention’ to withdraw. Intentions can change. We still have all the rights of a member state, including the right to change our minds and our votes, as member states frequently do, for example, after elections. The article is about voluntary withdrawal, not about expulsion.”

European leaders have made as much clear. At a joint press conference with May in June, the French president, Emmanuel Macron, said: “The door, of course, is still open as long as Brexit negotiations have not been concluded.” (The EU has said negotiations must conclude by autumn 2018, several months ahead of the official leaving date.) Last month, the European Council president, Donald Tusk, told MEPs: “It is in fact up to London how this will end, with a good deal, no deal or no Brexit.”

But May and Corbyn, for different reasons, remain committed to EU withdrawal. The Prime Minister has more to fear from her party’s hard Brexiteers than she does from the small band of Tory parliamentary Remainers. Had May pushed against “hard Brexit” after the 2017 general election debacle, she would have been removed as leader.

Corbyn, who has voted against every significant piece of EU legislation since entering parliament in 1983, has no political or ideological attachment to the European project. Indeed, he has often spoken of the single market as an obstacle to building socialism in Britain. Corbyn’s Euroscepticism is shared by his shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, the shadow international trade secretary, Barry Gardiner, the shadow cabinet office minister, Jon Trickett (who is leading Labour’s preparations for government), his communications director, Seumas Milne, and his policy director, Andrew Fisher, the author of the well-received election manifesto.

In the view of Corbyn’s inner circle, opposing Brexit would undermine the leader’s political project. As a senior ally told me: “Our essential analysis is that the political and economic elite has failed the country, and it’s led to this insurgent feeling and a cynicism about the British establishment, which has done a lot of damage to the Labour Party brand in the past. Because of that, it’s very difficult for us to look as though we’re prepared to say we know better than the electorate on a decision like Brexit.”

The most pro-European politician in Labour’s senior ranks is the shadow home secretary, Diane Abbott, who is a passionate defender of free movement. “Diane could be an unlikely ally,” a senior Labour source told me. “She’s the most influential person in the shadow cabinet who thinks this thing should be stopped. Privately, it’s very clear that’s her position.” (Abbott said in response: “My view is that we have to respect the referendum result.”)

Barnier was impressed by Corbyn at their October meeting, as were other senior Eurocrats. Adonis said: “What everybody told me is that they had very good meetings with Jeremy. They said he had been very on the ball and came across as being in favour, broadly, of staying in the single market and the customs union. I’ve had that both from people in the European Commission and in the parliament. They liked him. He came across very positively.”

The prospect of a Corbyn Labour government, however, has deterred some Conservatives from rebelling. As Umunna noted: “Continually talking up the possibility of an early election being precipitated by Brexit bottlenecks in the House of Commons reduces the likelihood of Tory MPs supporting amendments to Brexit legislation.”

Vince Cable, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, is frustrated at the refusal of anti-Brexit Tories to go public. “There are a lot of Tories who we know are deeply unhappy about what is happening, including members of the government,” he told me. “But they’re not pushing their heads above the parapet.”

If Brexit is to be stopped, this must change. Cable’s hope and expectation are that where the public leads, MPs may follow. “The negotiations haven’t really started,” he said. “We can’t judge how the public will view the outcome, particularly if they’re faced with a breakdown and the massive dislocation that would come from a collapse in our relationship… I expect the public mood would shift quite dramatically.”

Those in the Commons who wish to stop Brexit are focused on securing a “meaningful vote” on any final deal (which the government consistently denies them). Rather than accepting a “no deal” outcome, they would be empowered to send ministers back to the EU negotiating table. Labour has vowed to vote against the government’s final Brexit deal unless it delivers the “exact same benefits” as the UK’s current membership (a threat that partly prompted May’s fateful election). The possibility that parliament could thwart or delay Brexit explains the magnetic appeal of “no deal” to some Tories. Though the UK would face punitive tariffs, chaos at ports and even grounded air flights, it would at least be out of the EU.

“That would be a good deal messier because there is a reapplication process,” Cable said. In theory, as a new member state applying to join under Article 49, the UK would be obliged to join the euro and the borderless Schengen Area. “No one in practice is going to insist on that.” But Cable conceded, “It wouldn’t be the status quo ante. Some things would have to change” – the UK’s £4.8bn budget rebate being an obvious target.

The defining aim of Remainers is to ensure that this point is not reached. By rejecting the government’s deal in autumn 2018, MPs could stop Brexit. “Clearly there would be a national crisis,” said Clegg. “I wouldn’t be surprised if it would be difficult for Theresa May to survive.”

In these circumstances, May or a new Conservative prime minister could seek refuge in a second referendum. “It can only be stopped by the people,” Soubry told me. “It’s incredibly important this comes from the bottom up, if it comes at all, and absolutely not from the top down.”

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The two referendums on Europe – in 1975 and 2016 – were instigated by Harold Wilson and David Cameron, respectively, largely for the purposes of party management. In the event of a chaotic conclusion to negotiations or a rejection in parliament, a new prime minister may yet reach for what Jim Callaghan presciently described in 1970 as the “rubber life raft” of a referendum. Yet perhaps the greatest obstacle Remainers face is time. It took Brexiteers decades to achieve a majority in parliament for an In/Out referendum on EU membership. Their opponents must do the same in little more than a year.

What gives Remainers enduring hope, however, is the belief that the complexity and divisiveness of Brexit – the greatest challenge any government has faced since 1945 – will overwhelm May’s fractious and enfeebled government. Clegg said: “If you keep stamping your foot impetuously, as the Brexiteers do, saying, ‘It will be OK, it will be OK…’ eventually that will collapse under the weight of its contradictions.”

Mandelson put it more succinctly: “In the end, I think Brexit will defeat Brexit.” 

How Brexit could be stopped

The revocation of Article 50

Theresa May invoked Article 50 on 29 March 2017, triggering the UK’s two-year withdrawal from the EU. But the treaty’s author, the former Foreign Office diplomat John Kerr, has said that Britain is free at any moment to revoke its notice. “We still have all the rights of a member state, including the right to change our minds… The article is about voluntary withdrawal, not about expulsion.”

An extension in negotiations

Subject to the approval of the other 27 EU member states, the Brexit negotiations can be extended at any time. In the ensuing period, a new general election or a new referendum could be held.

An MPs’ vote

Remain MPs are focused on securing a “meaningful vote” on the government’s final deal (which the EU says needs to be reached by autumn 2018). This would empower them to send ministers back to the negotiating table, rather than merely accepting a “no deal” outcome.

A new general election or a second referendum

Were MPs to defeat the government, the crisis that would result could lead to a new referendum or another general election.

Since any Conservative leader would struggle to challenge Brexit and maintain MPs’ support, Remainers’ best hope is that Labour may change its position. Though Jeremy Corbyn is a long-standing Eurosceptic, the majority of party members support a second referendum. As of yet, the British public does not. 

George Eaton is deputy editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 November 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The plot to stop Brexit