A second referendum is a dangerous gamble

The hard Brexiteers are dead, murdered by reality. A toe twitches here, an unknown deputy chairman of the party resigns there, but that part of the psychodrama is over. Now begins the next act.

This week both the former foreign secretary William Hague and the Labour deputy leader Tom Watson invoked the once impossible possibility of a “second referendum”. Lord Hague of Richmond deployed it as a disciplinary spectre that could take on horrid substance if pro-Brexit Tories did not back Theresa May’s strategy.

Mr Watson said that his party had not ruled out the possibility of a second referendum should there be no Brexit deal that could garner a Commons majority. Which, at the time of writing, seems entirely possible.

Now it is the Remainers’ turn to make a decision. By Remainer I mean anyone who believes that it is in Britain’s best interests either to reverse its decision to leave the European Union, or else to be very closely associated with it. There are a lot of us around.

Let’s call the current May plan an embryonic and flawed version of the Norway option, ie a deal in which as little as possible changes. In the end, when you take out the euphemisms, it seems to entail many trade, financial and legal arrangements similar to those that Norway enjoys. It isn’t there yet, but it could be eventually.

So, should Remainers give Theresa May their backing? Or should they hold out for something better, like a second referendum in which either the May plan or a no-deal Brexit is posed against remaining in the EU on current terms?

Since the BBC and most newspapers are transfixed by the Moggites, and Nigel Farage gets vastly more airtime than Sir Vince Cable, the Remain movement has been chronically under-analysed. In those shadows it has grown into an inchoate beast possessing something it never had before: a significant number of fired-up and angry foot soldiers.

This should not be surprising. A recent poll asked Britons to choose between two statements, the first asserting that it is vital for jobs and prosperity for Britain to trade as freely with the EU as “we do today, even if this limits our freedom to decide our own business and trading rules”, and the second stressing the primacy of Britain regaining “the right to decide its own business and trading rules, even if this reduces our ability to trade freely with the EU”. Forty-eight per cent went for the first statement, 38 per cent for the second. But among the under-55s the margin was more like two to one. All but older Britons, in short, worry that Brexit is bad for their futures.

If Labour were available to take a lead over Brexit, the Remainers’ choice might be much simpler. The main opposition could by now have said that it wants Norway or it wants a second referendum in light of changed information and attitudes since June 2016. It could then have led the movement from the front.

Instead, it has opted for an incoherent mess of impossible aspirations linked to no known plan. This, of course, is mostly the result of Jeremy Corbyn’s lifelong socialism-in-one-country Euroscepticism, and also of the fears from some northern and Midlands MPs that they would leak Leave votes if they seemed to endorse something involving continued freedom of movement.

The result is that Labour’s emphasis changes depending upon who you talk to. And whatever any of them say, it will eventually be contradicted anyway by the strangely sinister shadow trade secretary Barry Gardiner, whose soft-voiced reassurances always put me in mind of Harold Shipman.

But Labour, like the government, is not where it was. Again, the polls show why. Labour members, voters and supporters are overwhelmingly pro-Remain and are becoming more so, not least because some of the younger Labour Leave voters have changed their minds.

Michel Barnier said this week that the EU and Britain had agreed “80 per cent” of a withdrawal agreement. If, in the end, it’s a Norway deal then Remainers and their representatives will face a sharp dilemma. Do they seek to improve it and then back it, or do they defeat it and go for a second referendum?

The argument against a Norway deal is similar for both Remainers and hard Brexiteers. It looks pretty much the same as being in the EU except without being at the centre of decision-making. This is what the Moggites, with their usual sensitivity to Scandinavian sensibilities, call the “vassal state”. It’s a damaging claim. If Remainers make it, they risk weakening support for what might be the best deal they can achieve.

But what about a second vote? I first advocated this two weeks after the last one, so I have been a fan. Nevertheless there are two big problems with it. The first is that it explicitly sets aside a previous democratic vote in order to have another one, and many people will be deeply unhappy. Indeed one of the more plaintive defences made by far-left Corbyn supporters of their leader’s stance is that a second vote will lead to right-wing violence. Insurgency has been implied by Nigel Farage, who has been plotting his next move from beside a swimming pool on the island of Bermuda. It was implicit too when The Daily Telegraph yesterday tweeted out the question asked by many of their readers: “Is Theresa May guilty of treason?”

I think this is bluster. Though I enjoy the Brideshead image of Jacob Rees-Mogg, Sebastian Flyte and Boy Mulcaster manning the Brexit barricades armed with a pair of Purdeys and a hamper prepared by nanny, the fact is that a second democratic vote would be just that — democratic — and Brits would go along with it.

Would Remain win it, though? It could. Things have changed since 2016. Remain is four or five points ahead in the polls. Some Leavers have changed their minds and many more Leavers than Remainers will, through natural means, have exited the voters’ list and entered a far better place. We have all (or almost all) learnt a lot since 2016. Remainers will be better organised and more fervent.

But “could” is the best I can do. Many voters will also feel intensely irritated to have to go through a referendum campaign again and may well want to punish those who provoked it.

Finally, let me posit a nightmare scenario. The parliamentary forces of Remain combine with the hard Brexiteers to defeat something like the Norway option. With the country at an impasse, the decision is made to go for a second referendum between a no-deal Brexit and remaining in the EU . . . and the former somehow wins. And something blond and ghastly emerges from the graveyard earth.

David Aaronovitch

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