Pressure mounts on UK govt for second Brexit referendum

November 12, 2018 11:46
Expressing dissatisfaction over Theresa May's Brexit plan, Jo Johnson quit her cabinet and accused the PM of “a failure of British statecraft unseen since the Suez crisis." Photo: Reuters

Pressure is mounting on UK Prime Minister Theresa May to offer the public a second referendum on whether and how the country should leave the European Union.

Her government and the EU are engaged in intense negotiations on the final withdrawal agreement and hope to conclude it this month. It must then be approved by the British Parliament -- an outcome that is far from certain.

On April 15 this year, a group of "Remainers", including Members of Parliament from different parties, launched People’s Vote. They argued that, in the first referendum on June 23, 2016, the public did not vote on this withdrawal agreement and had no idea of the terms. So they should be given a chance to decide on the final deal. They also argue that, before the 2016 vote, people were given a large amount of false and misleading information and promises.

On June 23, they mobilized 100,000 people to march for their cause through the streets of London. On October 20, a similar march attracted almost 700,000 people, one of the largest demonstrations in Britain since World War Two.

On November 3, more than 70 business leaders published an open letter demanding such a vote. "The business community was promised that, if the country voted to leave, there would continue to be frictionless trade with the EU and the certainty about future relations that we need to invest for the long term. Despite the Prime Minister's best efforts, the proposals being discussed by the government and the European Commission fall far short of this, and they are not nearly as good as the current deal we have inside the EU.

"Given that neither a blindfold or destructive hard Brexit was on the ballot in 2016, we believe the ultimate choice should be handed back to the public with a people’s vote,” it said.

Michael Rake, former president of the Confederation of British Industry, wrote on November 10 in the Financial Times that "the UK is risking an extremely bad deal or no deal, which most commentators agree would be close to catastrophic economically and politically extremely divisive. We have already paid a heavy economic price in terms of lost investment and influence, moving from one of the fastest growing G7 economies to one of the slowest.”

The campaign received a major boost last Friday, with the resignation of Jo Johnson, Minister of Transport. In his departure statement, he accused PM May of “a failure of British statecraft unseen since the Suez crisis (of 1956)."

"Britain is standing on the brink of the greatest crisis since the Second World War,” he said.

Johnson proposed a referendum with three options – endorse the deal negotiated by May’s government: leave without a deal: or remain in the EU. He is one of nine ‘Remainer” Conservative MPs who have backed a second referendum. Officially, the main opposition Labour Party is opposed to the idea; but its shadow Brexit secretary in October said that the party had not ruled out supporting a new vote.

May has consistently opposed the idea of a second referendum. "The Prime Minister has been clear – no second referendum. We had a people's vote – it was June 2016," her spokesman said last week.

Opponents also say that the British democratic system is based not on referenda but on the sovereignty of Parliament and that it has the final authority to decide on important issues.

It is not clear whether May will be able to get her deal through Parliament, where she does not command a majority. Her party is sharply divided, with some favoring a ‘hard’ Brexit or no deal at all, and others, like Jo Johnson, favoring Remain. Her deal will be a compromise and will not satisfy all these different and competing groups. They may choose to vote against it.

The opposition Labour party is also deeply split. Many of its MPs support Remain but are reluctant to anger electors who voted to leave. In addition, the party may choose to vote against the deal as a way to bring down May’s government.

If she can get her agreement approved by Parliament, there will not be a second referendum. But, if she fails and Britain is looking to leave the EU on March 29 next year with no deal, then it becomes a strong possibility.

When the electors see the imminent consequences of a no-deal, many may change their vote. In 2016, they did not sign up for this.

"We tend to forget that 64 percent of the total electorate and the overwhelming majority of the young who voted, did not vote to leave,” said Michael Rake. In June 2016, 52 percent voted to leave. So it would take a swing of only a few percentage points to go the other way.

In the next four months, anything is possible.

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A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.