Britain has never been so close to remaining in the EU (or to crashing out without a deal)

Mark Dawson analyses the case for a new ‘People’s Vote’ on Brexit.

When the campaign for a new ‘People’s Vote’ on Brexit was first launched in April of this year, it was treated in the UK as something of a joke. Its first campaign event attracted a total of 4 MPs and the support of the well-known Shakespearean (and Star Trek) actor Patrick Stewart. Its rallies were mostly known for their funny placards (even book shops joined in: one noted that, in light of Brexit, their post-apocalyptic science fiction section had been moved to current affairs.) For it to come about, the second ‘people’s’ referendum required an outlandish series of events to come to pass. Some combination of a toppled Prime Minister, an opposition leader with a sudden change of heart, a Parliament in revolt and a swift change in public and business opinion (and a good deal else) would be required.

The combination no longer seems so far-fetched. There is now a (highly uncertain) yet credible path to a second referendum. It has been opened-up by two conflicting forces. The first of these forces is the impossibility of agreeing a Brexit deal able to satisfy a majority in the UK Parliament. This was always likely to be a difficult task. The Prime Minister’s infamous red lines, set out soon after the triggering of Art. 50, boxed her into a corner that she has spent the last year trying to escape. This required leaving the Customs Union, the Single Market and the jurisdiction of the CJEU while still re-assuring her European partners of sufficient alignment of regulatory standards to retain access to European markets. The result has been a deal that disappoints everyone and satisfies no-one: soft Brexiteers because it relegates Britain to the status of a ‘rule-taker’ and hard Brexiteers because it severely restricts the autonomy of future UK governments to develop a new trading and economic model. In this sense, the surest away of avoiding another referendum – implementing a negotiated exit – seems increasingly difficult.

The second force is political self-interest. All of the major parties, and the conflicting factions within them, care about Brexit. They also, however, care about their political futures. This makes it all the more difficult to agree an alternative approach to Brexit (one able to avoid either another referendum, or a chaotic ‘no deal’). One way of resolving the impasse would be to call a general election. The election could be used to strengthen Mrs. May’s position vis-à-vis rebels in her own party, providing a public mandate for her vision for Brexit. Unfortunately for the Prime Minister, the prospect of an early election sends shivers down the spines of most Tory MPs. Well aware of what happened the last time Mrs. May called an early election to shore up her position, her MPs fear an early election would eject the Conservatives from office.

A second way to resolve the impasse would be to return to Brussels to seek a different deal. ‘Norway’ is thus becoming the key google-able term of Westminster: a way of delivering a closer form of European cooperation that might be able to garner more cross-party support. Political calculation makes this option equally unlikely. For the 60+ Brexiteer rebels within Tory ranks, a Norway style deal (allowing continued free movement) would be an even more unattractive proposition to sell to leave-supporting party members and constituents. For Labour, Norway would throw a political life-line to a Tory Prime Minister on the brink of being ousted by her own party. The EU also seems unwilling to help e.g. by splitting the difference between Norway and the current negotiated deal. Even the Norwegians seem to be unimpressed, with a number of MPs expressing reservations that the UK would overwhelm the existing balance within the EFTA states.[1]

The ‘People’s Vote’ thus stands a real chance, not because it is appealing to many MPs, but because the many alternatives are even worse. Its campaigners have even received some significant legal help in the last days. By ruling that the Article 50 departure process can be unilaterally revoked, the European Court of Justice has made it far easier for the UK to delay or end Brexit (in order to settle its membership in a further referendum). Captain Picard is getting ever closer to his wish.

The irony of the People’s vote is that it also brings forward another ghost. The momentum towards a second vote has begun to radicalise the Brexit debate, shifting its opponents from the May position (a negotiated exit) to the more extreme option of a no-deal Brexit. Even the biggest champions of a second referendum have begun to talk-up this new divide. Asked in a recent interview which questions voters should be asked in a second vote, Tony Blair argued for a choice between Remain and No-deal (with the May version of Brexit a non-starter). The calculation is that ‘no-deal’ is a sufficiently frightening prospect that even Eurosceptic voters would embrace continued EU membership to avoid it.

If the recent history of UK elections is anything to go by, that is a risky gamble for pro-Europeans to take. For many, it will be worth it. A People’s Vote may be Britain’s last chance to escape the unending political soap opera the Brexit process has created.


First published in Die Zeit Online (in German).

More about Mark Dawson

  • Mark Dawson , Professor of European Law and Governance