It took Brexiteers 41 years to secure and win a vote on the UK leaving the European project. Remainers have less than a year to achieve the reverse. It is this gnawing awareness that explains Tony Blair’s energetic New Year intervention. As the former prime minister writes: “2018 will be the year when the fate of Brexit and thus of Britain will be decided. 2017 was too early in the negotiation. By 2019, it will be too late.”
For Remainers, who wish to stop Brexit (not merely soften it), the uncomfortable truth is that they are losing. Public opinion has shown intermittent signs of Bregret. The number who believe that the UK was wrong to vote Leave has outstripped those who believe it was right. But there is not now, nor has there ever been, a consistent majority for a second referendum. When offered a menu of options by YouGov, 40 per cent of voters 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. (Some reasonably ask whether Blair, who was famously sensitive to public opinion, would take the same view if in office now.)
This is in spite of Remainers being vindicated on many fronts. Though the UK has avoided the recession that the Treasury and others forecast, it has gone from being the fastest-growing G7 economy to the slowest. Real wages have fallen for the last eight months and Britain is forecast by the OECD to have the worst wage performance of 32 advanced countries.
The government, meanwhile, has been forced to back a post-Brexit transition period of two years (during which nothing will change), accept a divorce bill of up to £39bn and agree to maintain “full regulatory alignment” in key areas in the absence of a solution to the Irish border dilemma. The Leave campaign’s promise of £350m a week for the enfeebled NHS is now a hollow joke (indeed, Britain is estimated to have foregone precisely this amount).
But the losses and pain are too incremental, too diffuse to transform public opinion. Until there is greater movement, Labour will not back a second referendum (though it has not ruled out the possibility) and MPs will be reluctant to vote against the government’s expected Brexit deal. The Liberal Democrats, who have backed a new referendum, are still polling at subterranean levels. Centrist parties are “launched” and never heard of again. It is symptomatic of Remain’s weakness that many of its most forceful advocates – Blair, Nick Clegg, Andrew Adonis, George Osborne, Michael Heseltine – are outside the Commons.
There is also no guarantee, as Remainers privately acknowledge, that a second referendum would be won. “It would simply be too risky,” a senior Labour MP told me, citing one definition of insanity: doing the same thing and expecting a different result. Rather than staging a new vote, some are alrady resigned to beginning a long campaign to rejoin the EU. Though much can change – and public opinion has never been more volatile – Remainers are short of that most precious resource: time.