One big obstacle to a second referendum has disappeared

31 May 2019

 

There's no shortage of headlines from last week's European Parliament election. Nigel Farage's Brexit party - which advocates for a WTO departure - topped the poll, winning 29 seats. Many on the Leave side have interpreted this as a ringing endorsement of 'no deal'. Meanwhile, the Lib Dems had their best ever night at a European election, knocking Labour into third place, whilst their fellow Remain parties also made gains. Remainers have been keen to highlight that the combined share of the vote for these parties exceeds that for the 'no deal' parties.

 

The biggest story of the night, however, was the drubbing received by both the major Westminster parties. Labour lost half their seats and saw some truly shocking results in their historic heartlands, finishing second to the Lib Dems in London and trailing both the Brexit party and Plaid Cymru in Wales. The Tories somehow conspired to perform even worse, picking up fewer votes than the Greens and failing to top the poll in a single counting area.

 

These results demonstrate that a significant portion of the electorate - though well short of a majority - want a 'no deal' exit. They also show widespread support for a second referendum. Most importantly though, they prove that the public has no appetite for a negotiated exit. The pasting taken by both Labour and the Tories, alongside May's resignation (and with it the death of the Withdrawal Agreement), has drastically reduced the chance of Britain leaving the EU with a deal.

 

What seems to have escaped the attention of many on both sides of the Brexit divide is that this removes one of the biggest obstacles to a second referendum: deciding what would be on the ballot paper. Back when May's deal - or a different negotiated outcome - were still possible outcomes, supporters of referendum re-run had to advocate either for a complicated three-way vote or rule out a public say on the full range of options.

 

However, last Thursday's election saw fewer than a quarter of voters back a negotiated exit, whilst 35% supported parties championing 'no deal' and an even greater share backed Remain parties. Such a clear cut rejection of a 'soft Brexit' (not that May's deal was ever particularly soft) must now mean that any future referendum would be between a 'no deal' exit and remaining in the EU.

 

Polls suggest that, since 2016, a small but significant number of voters have switched from Leave to Remain. However, the broader trend regarding public opinion on Brexit - which was confirmed at the European elections - has been a hardening of positions. Most Leave voters now regard any negotiated exit as a 'betrayal' whereas many Remain voters, who had previously been open to a sufficiently soft Brexit, believe it's time to call the whole thing off. If voters are to be given a final say, there are only two options left for them to choose between.

 

The question now for second referendum advocates is whether they want to run the risk of a 'no deal' Brexit. Prior to May's resignation, some campaigners for a public vote had proposed pitting her deal against remaining in the EU. This was a tactical move on two fronts. Firstly, May's deal has always been hugely unpopular with both Leavers and Remainers, meaning it would likely lose out to Remain in a head-to-head vote. Secondly, keeping 'no deal' off the ballot paper would rule out the worst possible outcome.

 

With a negotiated exit looking increasingly unpopular and implausible, that safety net has disappeared. Would the likes of Vince Cable, Ken Clarke and Chuka Umunna really risk becoming the politicians who paved the way for a 'no deal' Brexit? Last week's results hinted to remainers that they have more support than Farage and co. but, if the past few years have taught us anything, much could change over the course of a campaign.       

 

The calculation for Labour's public vote advocates, unofficially led by Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer, is similar. Their policy of pitting a "credible Leave option" against remaining in the EU has now run out of road. Throughout the Brexit process, Labour has been uncharacteristically united in its opposition to a 'no deal' exit. If a significant block of the PLP couldn't bring themselves to back a second referendum under that policy, there's little chance of them uniting behind a No Deal v Remain vote. 

 

May's resignation and the clear rejection of a negotiated exit mean that any future Brexit referendum would have to be a choice between two extremes. This solves one dilemma for those backing a public vote but poses another - whether to risk a 'no deal' exit. With the Halloween deadline approaching and a no-dealer poised to enter No. 10, Remainers don't have long to weigh up their options.   

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