How likely is a second Brexit referendum?

Public opinion remains too ambiguous for most MPs to back a new vote. 

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Had the Leave campaign lost the EU referendum by 52-48, Brexiteers would immediately have begun campaigning for a new vote. It is partly for this reason that Remainers have done the same since 23 June 2016.

The facts, they note, have changed since the public first voted. Rather than swiftly securing a new trade deal, the UK has been forced to accept a “transition period” of 21 months during which it will remain subject to all EU laws. Though a recession has been avoided, British GDP growth in 2017 was the weakest for five years and the worst of any G7 country (real wages, meanwhile, have fallen for the last 11 months). The fantasy of reaping £350m a week for the NHS has been discredited (Britain is forecast to endure a net fiscal loss of around that amount). And the US is now led by Donald Trump.

The allegations that Vote Leave broke electoral law during the campaign have added to demands for a re-run. Two pro-Brexit whistleblowers, Christopher Wylie and Shahmir Sanni, have backed Fair Vote UK, which is demanding a new referendum.

A YouGov poll today suggests that the public back this stance. The survey, commissioned by the anti-Brexit Best for Britain, shows that 44 per cent believe the public should have the “final say” on whether the UK remains in the EU, while 38 per cent believe it should not.

Remainers have naturally seized on the finding, but public opinion is more ambiguous than they would like. A differently-worded question in the same poll, which asked whether there should be a “public vote”, put “should not” ahead by six points (45-39). And it is far from certain that the UK would differently. Today’s YouGov poll gives Remain a three-point lead (44-41), but others have suggested Leave would win by a similar margin. 

Conservative and Labour MPs have long told me that a significant shift in public opinion, rather than a slight one, is required for them to change their stance. There is an unambiguous democratic case for a new referendum but the political case is harder to make.

Remainers continue to hope for a deus ex machina​. The Leave campaign could be found to have broken electoral law. MPs could reject the anticipated Brexit deal this autumn - and resolve to let the public decide.

But others lament that time - and politics - is against them. Neither Labour nor a significant number of Tory MPs back a new referendum. The anti-Brexit Liberal Democrats are marooned at seven per cent in the polls. A new centrist party has not materialised. Rather than trying to stop Brexit, some Remainers say, the task is to soften it. Others are already steeling themselves for a new campaign: the fight to rejoin the EU.

George Eaton is senior online editor of the New Statesman.

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