Is there a reverse gear out of Brexit?

The calls for a halt to Brexit are growing as the process of leaving the European Union gets bogged down.


No great shakes: David Davis and Michel Barnier
(Image credit: Copyright (c) 2017 Rex Features. No use without permission.)

The campaign to halt Brexit is "gathering pace", says Gideon Rachman in the Financial Times. "The most obvious sign is the increasing chatter about a second referendum." True, for now, it is mostly former politicians such as former Labour leader Tony Blair and ex-Liberal Democrat chief Nick Clegg who have explicitly said that they want to stop Brexit. But with active politicians talking of a "soft" Brexit (rather than a "hard" one), adds Adam Bienkov in Business Insider, public support for a second referendum is at an "all-time high".

According to a recent Opinium poll, 41% are in favour of another referendum, up from 31% at the end of 2016. Meanwhile a Survation poll found that 53% would back a second referendum on whether to accept the terms of the final Brexit deal. Vince Cable, who became the leader of the LibDems on Thursday, has confirmed he would offer voters a second referendum.

Meanwhile, Lord Kerr, author of Article 50, is one of dozens of prominent Scots to sign an open letter this week calling for Brexit to be halted as the "disastrous consequences" become "ever clearer". There is increasing infighting in Theresa May's cabinet over Brexit and pollsters Survation found that just 16% of people believe the government is handling the process well, says Henry Mance in the Financial Times. Signs from across the Channel aren't encouraging, either.

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Writing in The Times, Hans-Olaf Henkel, a German MEP, said he believed that Guy Verhofstadt, the European parliament's Brexit coordinator, and Michel Barnier, Europe's chief negotiator, "want to make sure that Brexit is such a catastrophe that no country dares to take the step of leaving the EU again". During talks this week, Barnier said that he is prepared to "stall" Brexit talks over British unwillingness to discuss our "divorce bill", which could be as high as €100bn, says David Herszenhorn in Politico.

"If Remainers are to have any chance of blocking Brexit", they have to find a response to the argument that to do so would be an "insult to democracy", says Rachman. That will, however, become "increasingly easy, as the contradictions in the Brexit project become evident". The 52% who chose Brexit last June were actually "two minorities, voting for two incompatible ideas": one prioritises immigration control over single-market access; the other prioritises free trade over border controls.

The "Leave" campaign convinced enough voters that there was no choice to be made, but it is now "obvious" that "frictionless trade" along with an end to freedom of movement cannot happen. "As the real choices become clear, the slim pro-Brexit majority could easily fall apart" creating "a clear demand" for a second referendum.

Have we not learned our lesson? asks Polly Toynbee in The Guardian. Another referendum would be folly. "A crude question divides a nation, driven by emotions not on the ballot paper, paralysing politics for years." The solution may be a "long, perhaps never-ending compromise". Exit could be delayed by revoking Article 50 just before the March 2019 deadline. Even David Davis acknowledges the need for transition time, as the "fiendish complexity of everything dawns".

Staying in the single market and customs union "might be bought at a price and Blair is not alone in sensing a chance for a slight shift in free -movement rules". Staying in limbo will satisfy no one, but provided "we are no better off outside the club, the EU might accept a messy compromise". And one day, perhaps Britain "may vote for a government that advocates returning, humbled, to an EU that may itself look changed".

Emily Hohler

Emily has worked as a journalist for more than thirty years and was formerly Assistant Editor of MoneyWeek, which she helped launch in 2000. Prior to this, she was Deputy Features Editor of The Times and a Commissioning Editor for The Independent on Sunday and The Daily Telegraph. She has written for most of the national newspapers including The Times, the Daily and Sunday Telegraph, The Evening Standard and The Daily Mail, She interviewed celebrities weekly for The Sunday Telegraph and wrote a regular column for The Evening Standard. As Political Editor of MoneyWeek, Emily has covered subjects from Brexit to the Gaza war.

Aside from her writing, Emily trained as Nutritional Therapist following her son's diagnosis with Type 1 diabetes in 2011 and now works as a practitioner for Nature Doc, offering one-to-one consultations and running workshops in Oxfordshire.