Would Remain win a second referendum?

The ground has shifted, but who that favours is less clear.


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Danny Finkelstein writes persuasively in his Times column that it would not be straightforward for Remain to win a second Referendum.  That is presumably one of the reasons – though there may be others – why Nigel Farage fuelled discussion of one recently.

Danny is sceptical of Remainers’ chances on three counts.  First, unlike in the first referendum, the status quo would not look as certain relative to what was then a multitude of possibilities for leaving.  Second, the stamp of approval of the government might reassure potential Leave voters. Third, Leavers would be wary of a second referendum that was an establishment plot to avoid doing what they were told the first time.

There are other factors at work too.

The status quo of membership will look different. David Cameron’s negotiated proposals to modify freedom of movement within the EU are off the table, and would probably not make it back on. There have been noises, which might soon translate into policy action, in the direction of Euro area fiscal integration, made by both Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel. Free of the threat of a UK veto, discussion of the idea of a common EU defence force has intensified. These debates can be used by Leave to caricature continued EU membership as being too close to a more powerful vortex of ‘ever closer political union’ which will inevitably suck the United Kingdom in.

The ambiguity around Leave that helped unite it during the first referendum will be gone, dissolved in the face of a definite proposal. As well as causing some former Leave voters – perhaps disappointed at not retaining single market membership – to back Remain, it will complicate campaigning, to put it mildly. 

The Brexit factions in both Ukip and the Conservative Party are in open warfare about what kind of Brexit to go for. It is hard to imagine any of them giving up as any particular choice in the spectrum from Brexit In Name Only to an immediate walking away disappoints someone. The fight is aggravated by the fact that the EU’s negotiating stance – indeed how it sees its own incentives to stop the union from being unravelled – means that there are only a few options, far apart from each other, on the table. The Brexit factions can’t pick their own compromise degree of distance from the EU.  A campaign more openly at war with itself might do less well.

Ukip has since imploded, sapped by the departure of their charismatic leader Nigel Farage, a loss of purpose, and an accumulation of damaging coverage of in-fighting and scandal.

In 2016 Leave harvested some votes that were about kicking the incumbent government, rather than explicitly about leaving the EU.  In theory, those who vote this way would be there for Remain’s taking, assuming that the government backs the deal it gets with the EU.  This would be helped by Labour turning the vote into one on government competence and Toryism (‘Tory Brexit’).

That said, Labour might struggle to campaign convincingly for Remain itself, if the other box on the ballot paper is precisely that.  Although the tactical break away from Hard Brexit in 2017 is something Labour will want to keep hold of,  the party has said many negative things about membership since 2016 that could be used against it. Notably on freedom of movement, and what it thinks are barriers to nationalisation and industrial policy. 

By the time a second referendum were held, many facts on the ground would be different. Turkey can no longer be plausibly said to be joining the EU in the near future. So some of those posters will not work this time. The migrant crisis has dried up. The Greek crisis is under control and less fresh in the memory. The grisly march of time will have replaced older voters –disproportionately Leavers – with younger ones. And polls have shifted in favour of Remain, albeit not by much.

A second referendum seems politically unlikely. But these ambiguities about who would win, encouraging many on both sides to think that they can, will be something that makes one more likely to happen than otherwise.