Referendum Redux?

Two years after deciding to leave the European Union, many Brits want a second vote on Brexit.

Demonstrators take part in the People's Vote march calling for a referendum on a final Brexit deal in central London on Oct. 20. (Nikilas Halle'n/AFP/Getty Images)
Demonstrators take part in the People's Vote march calling for a referendum on a final Brexit deal in central London on Oct. 20. (Nikilas Halle'n/AFP/Getty Images)

Organizers of a rally in London calling on the government to hold a new referendum on Britain’s leaving the European Union had expected 100,000 people. Instead, nearly 700,000 turned up for the People’s Vote march over the weekend, the largest protest in Britain since a 2003 rally opposing the Iraq War. The demonstrators—many of whom had traveled from far-flung corners of Britain—carried placards that ranged from the witty (“What a Load of Brexcrement”) to the obscene (“Buck Frexit!”). But the message sent by the huge numbers of protesters was clear enough. After nearly two years of stalled negotiations between Theresa May’s Conservative government and the EU, support for a second vote has suddenly gained dramatic momentum.

It’s not hard to see why. May is trapped in an impossible paradox. The hard-liners in her own party demand that Britain leave Europe’s customs union and single market. But May herself has also promised Brussels that there will be no post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland (part of the U.K.) and the Republic of Ireland (an EU member). That means that Northern Ireland must remain inside the EU’s rules, effectively forever, regardless of what the rest of the United Kingdom does. May has insisted that there will be no internal customs border inside Britain—which logically means that the rest of the country must stay inside the single market, too. “It is a Customs Union Brexit, or leave the EU without a deal,” wrote Robert Peston, the political editor of Britain’s ITV News. “But a customs-union Brexit deal would see her Brexiter [members of Parliament] become incandescent with fury.”

It’s the looming prospect of Britain crashing out of the EU with no deal in place that has given the People’s Vote movement much of its urgency. Last week, a key meeting with EU leaders long billed as May’s make-or-break moment fizzled when the British prime minister brought no new proposals to the table. May is also looking increasingly like a politically dead woman walking. Over the weekend, the British press was awash with rumors that enough Conservative MPs had registered their opposition to May to trigger a formal leadership challenge. And even if May survives and is able to reach some kind of agreement with Brussels—which, realistically, can only be a Brexit in name only—there are serious doubts that she has enough support from her own terminally fractured Conservatives to get such a deal approved by Parliament.

That leaves three options: a new general election, a no-deal Brexit, or a second referendum. The first is unlikely, as two-thirds of Parliament would have to approve an early election and Conservatives would be reluctant to face an electoral bloodbath. A no-deal Brexit would be economically disastrous, with the government itself warning of serious disruption to food and medicine supplies and severe delays and confusion at hastily set up customs posts between Britain and the EU.

By this logic, a second referendum might seem the most likely way out of the coming parliamentary deadlock. It would certainly if the voters reversed their decision, allowing May an easy way out of her current nightmare with Brussels. Yet most Brexit supporters—including May herself—passionately oppose it. “We have already had a People’s vote. The People voted to Leave,” tweeted Jacob Rees-Mogg, a former banker-turned-Conservative member of Parliament who now leads the European Research Group, a club of hardcore Leavers. “The second referendum campaign is a con promoted by elitist losers who cannot accept democracy unless it goes their way,” read an ad in the Times.

Driving the resistance to a second vote is the concern that Brexit is no longer appealing to a majority of Brits. A study of recent opinion polls by the data analysis group Focaldata in August seemed to bear that out. It showed that on average some 53 percent of voters now wish to remain in the EU. The same study suggested that some 112 parliamentary seats (out of 632 in England, Scotland, and Wales) had swung from Leave to Remain. Members of Britain’s three biggest trade unions now also support a new referendum on Brexit by a margin of more than 2 to 1. Among the most vocal groups calling for a fresh vote are those too young to have participated in the first one. Since the first referendum in 2016, some 650,000 voters have died—almost all of them from a demographic that strongly supported leaving the EU. In their place, a similar number of young people have joined the electorate—and some 75 percent of Britain’s 18- to 24-year-olds oppose Brexit.

The main problem for the People’s Vote campaign is time. “The clock that has been ticking since March 2017 [when May triggered Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union, which regulates countries leaving the EU] is now at one minute to midnight,” wrote Chris Grey, a professor at the University of London, in his blog. “If Brexit is to be averted by means of referendum it is pretty much now or never.”

May has consistently opposed a second vote as not being “in the national interest.” And any new referendum must be approved by Parliament. The Labour opposition, despite strong pressure from its members during its recent conference, has not yet committed to backing a referendum. That’s in part because many working-class Labour heartlands voted Leave and in part because Labour’s leader, Jeremy Corbyn, and his closest ally, shadow Finance Minister John McDonnell, both believe that Brexit will allow them to pursue a more radically socialist agenda if and when they get into power.

But even if Parliament—meaning Labour—backs a referendum, Britain’s Electoral Commission insists on a 10-week campaign period for a national referendum. That timeline comes perilously close to the moment that Britain is formally due to leave the EU: March 29, 2019. Several European leaders, including French President Emmanuel Macron, have indicated that the Article 50 deadline could be extended and that Britain could still change its mind about Brexit. But hard-line Brexiteers “know very well that if the date is postponed by even a day, then it’s all over,” said one senior U.K. government aide who was not authorized to speak on the record. The hard-line Brexit advocates’ “goal is to get us across that line, whatever happens. Then Brexit is done, and they can get on with blaming everyone else for the ensuing disaster.”

The paradox is that even as opposition to Brexit and support for a referendum grows, the path to a second referendum remains for all practical purposes blocked by die-hard Brexit supporters in Parliament and Labour’s deliberate fence-sitting. For the moment, a no-deal Brexit remains the most likely option.

Britain’s 2016 vote to leave the EU exposed many fault lines in British society—a revolt of left-behind provinces against the capital, of anti-immigrant, white working-class voters against the liberal values of a metropolitan elite. But most glaring of all was the split between the young and the old. One slogan carried by many of the youngest demonstrators in London over the weekend told the most profound story: “Brexit stole my future.” But with both the British government and opposition reluctant to consult the people once more, the protesters are likely to be ignored. Much the same way the anti-war protesters were ignored 15 years ago.

Owen Matthews, the author of Stalin's Children, is based in the United Kingdom. He was Newsweek’s Moscow bureau chief from 2006 to 2016. Twitter: @owenmatth

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