Alan Duncan is right about a second referendum – but not in the way Remainers think

A new poll isn't happening anytime soon. Even if it did, it wouldn't be a golden ticket back into the EU.


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Alan Duncan, Boris Johnson's deputy at the Foreign Office, stirred the hopes of continuity Remainers and sent Leavers into paroxysms of rage today when he admitted that a second referendum could happen. Or at least that's what the viral news reports and triumphant reaction from campaigners suggested. 

The killer line from a speech Duncan gave at a conference on Berlin, seized on by Open Britain and others, was as follows: “It would, I suppose, be possible to ask the people in a referendum if they liked the exit deal or not.”

That alone is hardly a ringing endorsement of the campaign for what Remainers have taken to calling a People's Vote but is, in isolation, significant, given that a second referendum is not government policy nor something that is ever entertained publicly by ministers.

The only problem is that it isn't significant, as Duncan didn't say it. At least not in the form or context that it's been presented. 

Read in full, Duncan's words on the prospect of a second referendum are explicitly dismissive. As is the very passage from which the supposed endorsement comes. That not even a single complete sentence is anything like positive is telling.

As for the second myth, a second referendum is not going to happen either. If it did, it would be significantly more politically divisive than the first referendum, and it would create lasting political distrust. It would, I suppose, be possible to ask the people in a referendum if they liked the exit deal or not, but that would mean the choice would be between the exit deal on offer or no deal at all. It would not in reality offer people the option of reversing the original decision to leave the EU.

Duncan is right on more or less every level. There is nothing to suggest that a second referendum is more likely to happen than not during the lifetime of this parliament or this stage of the Brexit process. For now, Theresa May is opposed, the Labour leadership is opposed, and the Liberal Democrats have 12 seats. And even the most cursory look at the impact the first referendum has had on politics and the political process suggests he's right to say the debate would be significantly coarser, nastier and divisive.

Then we come to the sentence being peddled as evidence of a Brexit U-turn at the heart of government. Of course, Duncan is right to say that there could be a referendum on the exit deal. But even then it isn't good news for those whose aim is to stop Britain leaving. 

As he says, there is no reason why the No option in a new referendum should mean staying in the EU, or even a significantly softer Brexit. Not least because, as he says, the government would likely narrowly define the question to one that did not allow for that to happen. Regardless of the result, a second referendum, People's Vote, first referendum on the deal or whatever you want to call it wouldn't be a golden ticket straight back into the EU, and, indeed, that's how campaigners for one are now justifying their calls.

However selectively Remainers quote Duncan, that uncomfortable reality doesn't change: the referendum they'll get isn't the one they're calling for, the one they're calling for isn't the one they want, and neither would produce the outcome they desire anyway.

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.