With the government’s ‘meaningful vote’ on the withdrawal agreement just days away and looking unlikely to pass in the Commons, the prospect of a second referendum is inching ever closer.
This week’s amendments to the EU Withdrawal Act mean that if it is defeated, the government must return to the Commons within 21 days setting out how it wishes to proceed. Whatever proposal the government comes back with must now be amendable by parliament.
There are some MPs who hope to use this opportunity to table an amendment calling for a second referendum. Aside from that the fact that it’s unclear that there’s even a majority for another referendum, to those calling for a so-called ‘People’s Vote’, let this serve as a warning – that way madness lies.
For many remainers, the logic behind a push for a second referendum is clear. (1) The remain campaign lost the first referendum by the slimmest of margins; (2) it’s now blindingly obvious that the promised ‘sunny uplands’ won’t become a reality any time soon; (3) and revelations about electoral malfeasance suggest that the leave campaigns not only lied, but were also funded by ‘dark money’, which if proven true, render the first referendum an unsound basis on which to leave the EU. Therefore, a second referendum is not just the democratically right thing to do, but is also likely to return a majority for remain.
This is all very well, and remainers have spent the past 2 and a half years trying to convince voters of this logic. But something else is also clear – remainers have not learned the painful lessons of 2016, and therefore run the risk of losing by an even bigger majority.
There’s an unquestionable truth in remain circles that the leave campaign won because they promised voters that they could have their cake and eat it. In other words, they could have the benefits of EU membership (frictionless access to the biggest single market on the planet) with none of the costs (contributions to EU budget and freedom of movement). This has been the accepted wisdom since the day after the vote and hasn’t been sufficiently challenged.
‘Didn’t you hear us the first time?’
There’s another narrative, which is that, like Trump voters in the US and the ‘gilet jaunes’ movement currently bringing France to its knees, voters were simply tired of their concerns being ignored by the liberal metropolitan elite and saw the referendum as an opportunity to vent their anger at a system that inflicted years of cuts and stagnating wages on ‘ordinary people’. This is the issue that the bulk of remainers have yet to tackle, and there’s no evidence that a vote for remain in another referendum would address these concerns.
One of the most potent criticisms of the first referendum is that, in promising a brighter future free from the shackles of Brussels, the leave campaign had the stronger narrative. Unfortunately, in the event of a second referendum, their narrative would be even stronger. In other words, like Denmark on the Maastricht Treaty, Ireland on the Nice Treaty and Ireland again on the Lisbon Treaty, the EU, along with ‘remain establishment’ are simply trying to force us to keep voting until we change our minds. The leave campaign slogan writes itself – ‘Didn’t you hear us the first time?’
Project Fear 2.0
The remain campaign run the serious risk of trotting out the same establishment and business figures with their charts and financial forecasts predicting economic doom and gloom, to which a newly emboldened Nigel Farage and rejuvenated Boris Johnson will simply respond with ‘Project Fear 2.0’.
If you speak to people who voted to leave, it’s clear that many have a great deal of sympathy for prime minister Theresa May, who they view as a strong woman standing up for ordinary people against the technocrats in Brussels and the remainer toffs in the Tory party. Voters are also sick and tired of hearing about Brexit – ‘we voted to leave 2 and a half years ago, so why haven’t we left yet?’ is the common refrain.
So, to those who think a second referendum is the best way out of this Brexit madness, be careful what you wish for – a victory for remain is by no means a foregone conclusion.