In or Out? In Brexit Finale, It’s No Longer Clear What Brits Want

Leavers say a revote would be undemocratic, but polls now put them in the minority.

Anti-Brexit activists demonstrate outside the Houses of Parliament in Westminster, London, on March 28 (Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images)
Anti-Brexit activists demonstrate outside the Houses of Parliament in Westminster, London, on March 28 (Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images)

Have British voters changed their minds about the wisdom of exiting the European Union? A swath of new polls—as well as an estimated million-strong anti-Brexit demonstration last weekend in London and 6 million signatures on an online petition to Parliament urging the government to cancel Brexit altogether—suggest that the tide is turning.

A comprehensive poll by John Curtice, a professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde, shows that in a new referendum on leaving the EU, 53 percent would vote to remain in the EU and 47 percent would vote to leave—a rough reversal of the 48 percent Remain to 52 percent Leave result in the 2016 plebiscite that originally mandated Brexit. Another poll by the National Centre for Social Research, known as NatCen, puts the split at 55 percent to 45 percent in favor of Remain.

While the polls are “too close for opponents of Brexit to assume that a second ballot would produce a different result,” Curtice wrote for the BBC on Tuesday, “equally, supporters of Brexit cannot say with confidence that the balance of opinion remains as it was in June 2016.”

That shift in public opinion directly challenges the premise on which Prime Minister Theresa May’s government has been pushing the House of Commons to support the deeply unpopular withdrawal agreement that May struck with Brussels last year. Failing to deliver Brexit would “break the promises made by Government to the British people, disrespect the clear instruction from a democratic vote, and in turn, reduce confidence in our democracy,” the UK government wrote in an official letter to the nearly 6 million signatories of an online petition calling for May to revoke Article 50, the mechanism by which the U.K. is due to leave the EU. “It is imperative that people can trust their Government to respect their votes and deliver the best outcome for them.”

Insisting on the continuing legitimacy of the 2016 referendum—where 17.4 million voters supported leaving the EU—has become the keystone of all arguments for Brexit. And opponents of Brexit, including the vast crowds who filled central London on Saturday, have been denounced as enemies of democracy. “Let’s be honest—they are marching against democracy and the implementation of a democratic referendum result,” Marcus Fysh, a Conservative member of parliament, told the Telegraph. “They are trying to set up a second vote where Remain is on the ballot. A ‘final say’ is not what they want—they want to reverse the result. This is a putsch that is going on this week.”

Or as the satirical magazine Private Eye joked this week in speech bubble coming from a picture of May: “A second referendum would be a betrayal of democracy—which is why we need to have a third vote on my deal.”

Members of parliament have already rejected May’s withdrawal agreement twice, with historically huge numbers of Conservative MPs rebelling against their own party to oppose it. The opponents included both Brexit ultras who believe the deal would leave the U.K. too closely bound to the EU as well as Remain supporters who argue that the deal is far worse than continued membership. The government has hinted that it will put the deal to parliament a third time perhaps as soon as Friday—though despite strenuous efforts by May to win over hard-line Brexiteers, it is still unlikely to pass.

In that sense, Parliament’s distaste for May’s deal clearly reflects the mood in British society. The NatCen poll, conducted in February, showed that 63 percent of respondents believed the U.K. would get a bad deal from the EU—while just 6 percent thought that the outcome would be a good one. That’s a dramatic shift from just before the U.K. triggered the Article 50 process in March 2017: In February of that year, 33 percent of voters thought that May would get a good deal and 37 percent a bad one. In the most recent poll, 80 percent of Leave voters said the government had handled the Brexit negotiations badly, up from 27 percent in 2017.

This week, Parliament also wrested control of the Brexit debate from the hands of the government in order to conduct a series of indicative votes on eight possible ways forward—but it failed to assemble a majority behind any of them. The closest the House of Commons came to consensus were relatively narrow defeats for a Norway-style relationship with the EU—essentially following all of Brussels’s rules and accepting free movement of EU citizens while having no say in the making of those rules—and for passing May’s deal subject to confirmatory referendum. That confirmatory referendum plan, proposed by two MPs from the opposition Labour Party, is in fact a second referendum in disguise. A YouGov poll this month puts support for a second national vote at 50 percent for and 36 percent against, a significant shift in favor of a new referendum.

There’s a paradox at the heart of May’s government doggedly pushing its deal through rather than putting the matter to a new public vote: Remaining in the EU was the official policy of both Conservative and Labour parties for over 40 years, May herself campaigned for Remain in 2016, and over two-thirds of MPs also campaigned for and voted Remain. But if Brexit is no longer, in fact, the current will of the British people, why is May still adamant about delivering it? “The answer is very simple—failing to deliver Brexit will completely destroy the Tory party,” said one senior government official not authorized to speak on the record. Already, the hard-line pro-Brexiters of the European Research Group form “a party within a party … They already hate May for screwing up Brexit, as they see it, because she couldn’t deliver on their fantasy of all the benefits of [EU] membership without following all the rules. But if Brexit doesn’t happen, they will scream ‘Betrayal!’ And the swing to a new, [pro-Brexit] protest party would destroy our chances of coming back to power for a generation.”

In other words, despite the personal reservations of many Conservative members of Parliament, the future of their party remains inexorably shackled to the outcome of Brexit. But it’s also become painfully clear that the promises made by the Vote Leave campaign have been shown to be unacceptable to Brussels—and therefore undeliverable. Leading Brexiteers promised that leaving the EU would yield a dividend of 350 million pounds a week, about $450 million, for the struggling National Health Service, a claim that has since been shown to be false—especially because under the terms of May’s deal the U.K. must continue to pay some 40 billion pounds, about $50 billion, into EU coffers. The Brexiteer Boris Johnson also falsely warned of Turkey’s population of 80 million imminently joining the EU—and he infamously professed himself in favor of “having our cake and eating it.

In practice it is the EU that has held all the cards in the fraught three-year period since the referendum, resisting British attempts to split the unity of the EU members and standing in immovable solidarity with EU member Ireland, which has insisted that there be no hard border with British Northern Ireland—effectively locking the whole of the U.K. into a close customs union with the EU whether Parliament wants it or not.

May herself told party members that she would resign if they voted for her deal—but even that promise is unlikely to get enough of her fractious colleagues to back her. “Everyone knows that she’s going to go soon anyway, so the promise to fall on her sword rings pretty hollow,” said one Conservative MP who did not wish to jeopardize his government position by speaking out against his leader on the record. “The problem is I don’t see how a new leader will change much … and the public will punish us at the polls for indulging in a leadership contest in the middle of a national crisis.”

While Parliament dithers and May scrambles to assemble a majority for her deal, the clock is ticking. According to the terms of Article 50 of the EU Constitution—and indeed by an as yet unamended U.K. law—Britain is due to leave the EU on Friday, March 29. Brussels has given May a short de facto extension until April 12 to get her deal over the line—or apply for a much longer extension of up to a year that would entail Britain participating in EU parliamentary elections in May. But in order to agree, Brussels has insisted that the U.K. must offer a good reason for the delay, such as general election or a second referendum. “Brussels will be dictating the political processes of the UK,” grumbled the Conservative MP. “Doesn’t look much like taking back control to me.”

On Wednesday, European Council President Donald Tusk clearly signaled that the EU was firmly behind the British citizens who wish to remain. “You cannot betray the 6 million people who signed the petition to revoke article 50, the 1 million people who marched for a people’s vote, or the increasing majority of people who want to remain in the European Union,” Tusk told the European Council. “We should be open to a long extension if the U.K. wishes to rethink its Brexit strategy.”

With Theresa May herself ruling out crashing out of the EU with no deal—another turnaround from months of threatening exactly that outcome—it looks like the Brexit drama is set to run and run.

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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