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Remainers are running out of time to stop Brexit

Though Tony Blair's warnings have been vindicated, he and others are fighting a losing political battle. 

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. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Can Britain’s new powers to investigate unexplained wealth prevent real-life McMafias?

The government is waking up to the fact that global criminals are fond of London. 

The BBC’s McMafia, a story of high-flying Russian mobsters and international money launderers woven into the fabric of London, ended this month. Despite the dramatic TV twists, the subject matter has its basis in reality. As a barrister dealing with cases that involve Russia and former Soviet states, my experience is that politicians and business people use the apparatus of the state to put rivals out of business by any means possible.

In McMafia, previously straight-laced fund manager Alex Godman (played by James Norton) begins transferring money under the cover of a new investment fund. With a click of a button, he can transfer a shady partner’s money around the world. As the Paradise Papers underlined, money can indeed be hidden through the use of complex company structures registered in different countries, many of which do not easily disclose the names of owners and beneficiaries. One company can be owned by another, so the owner of Company A (in Panama) might be Company B (in the Cayman Islands) which is owned by Company C (in the Seychelles) which owns property in London. To find out who owns the property, at least three separate jurisdictions must be contacted and international co-operation arranged – and that’s a simple structure. Many companies will have multiple owners, making it even more difficult to work out who the actual beneficiary is.

I represent individuals before the UK extradition and immigration courts. They are bankers, business people and politicians who have fled persecution in Russia and Ukraine or face fabricated charges in their home country and face extradition or deportation and will often be tortured or put on show trial if we lose. Their opponents will deploy spies, who may pay visits to co-defendants in Russia for “psychological work” (aka torture). Sometimes the threat of torture or ruin against a person’s family is enough to make them confess to crimes they didn’t commit. I have seen family members of my clients issued with threats of explicit violence and the implicit destruction of their life. Outside their close relatives’ homes in Russia, cars have been set on fire. Violence and intimidation are part of the creed that permeates the country’s business and political rivalries.

As in McMafia, London has long played a bit part in these rivalries, but the UK government has been slow to act. In 2006, Alexander Litvinenko, a former Russian security agent turned defector, was killed in London using Polonium 210 – a radioactive substance put into a cup of tea. Although Russian state involvement was suspected from the beginning, the UK government tried to block certain material being released into the public domain, leading his family to complain that the UK’s relations with Russia were being put before the truth. In 2016, a decade after his death, the inquiry finally delivered its verdict: there was a “strong probability” Litvinenko was murdered on the personal orders of Vladimir Putin. Yet in the same breath as condemning the act, David Cameron’s spokeswoman said the UK would have to “weigh carefully” the incident against “the broader need to work with Russia on certain issues”.

The government of Cameron’s successor has however been quick to use McMafia as a spring-board to publicise its new Unexplained Wealth Orders (UWO). These new investigatory powers are purportedly to be used to stop the likes of Alex from hiding money from the authorities. Anyone with over £50,000 of property who is politically exposed or suspected of a serious crime, will be forced to disclose the source of their wealth on request. While most British homeowners would own more than £50,000, the individuals are likely to be high profile politicians or under investigation already by the authorities. If they fail to respond punctually, they risk forfeiting their property.

The anti-corruption organisation Transparency International has long campaigned for such measures, highlighting cases such as the first family of Azerbaijan owning property in Hampstead or senior Russian politicians believed to own flats in Whitehall. Previously, confiscating hidden assets has been a lengthy and complex process: when the High Court confiscated an £11m London house belonging to a Kazakh dissident, the legal process took seven years.

The new Unexplained Wealth Orders mean that the onus is shifted to the owner of the property to prove legitimacy and the origin of the wealth. The authorities will have much greater power to investigate where finance and investment originated. But in order for them to work effectively, they will have to be backed up by expert prosecutors. The government still has a long way to go before it makes London a less attractive place to hide money.

Ben Keith is a barrister at 5 St Andrew’s Hill specialising in extradition, immigration, serious fraud, human rights and public law.