Features

Vote again to break the Brexit deadlock

Calls are growing for a second EU referendum. Matthew Partridge reports.

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Opinion is starting to shift towards a second referendum

Not only does the Brexit compromise hammered out at Chequers look like "the worst of both worlds", but whatever is agreed "there will inevitably be people disenfranchised by their MP's vote, despite Brexit shaping all our lives for decades to come", says former education secretary Justine Greening in The Times. The only solution "is to take the final Brexit decision out of the hands of deadlocked politicians, away from the backroom deals, and give it back to the people". This would involve a second referendum with the public "asked to choose between the three paths facing our country: the PM's final negotiated Brexit deal, staying in the EU, or a clean Brexit break and leaving with no deal".

A second poll could backfire

The idea of a second referendum is "beguiling", says William Hague in The Daily Telegraph. However, another vote would be "disastrous", not least because it would require the 29 March 2019 date for leaving the EU to be extended by six to nine months. There is also the question "of what the result would really mean". It would be impossible to construct all the options in a way that would be certain to make it clear what the electorate want. So we might just end up with "a mass of new and difficult options at the end of it". However, the most important argument against it is that it would effectively be saying "that even though the country reached a verdict after a long campaign", parliament "is not capable of delivering it". "Faith in our democratic processes would be correspondingly and severely affected."

Wait for a deal

Yet a referendum on the final deal is not necessarily a bad idea, says Simon Jenkins in The Guardian. The problem is that we don't yet know what the final deal will be and "the idea of asking the electorate its opinion during a negotiation is absurd". Instead, May and Corbyn, who are both "realists" on Brexit, should come to some agreement that would let parliament "offer united support to Britain's negotiators in Brussels". Only after the negotiation process is over and Britain has embarked on a transitional period of leaving the EU might it be wise, as in 1975, "to heal the bruised body politic with a second referendum". Even then a general election to get a "mandate for the leadership of post-Brexit Britain" would be a more plausible option.

Is it likely?

Still, setting aside the question of whether a second referendum would be useful, is it likely? Up until now those campaigning for one didn't look like they "had a chance of winning", says Andrew Grice in The Independent. But with the parliamentary arithmetic making any sort of Brexit deal impossible, a decision to "refer the issue back to the people" may be the only way "to break the deadlock". Opinion inside Labour is shifting towards a referendum among members, including Corbyn's Momentum cheerleaders, the trade unions, MPs, and even the shadow cabinet. A second vote may look "deeply unattractive" to both May and Corbyn at the moment. Things "could look very different early next year".

May is only putting off the showdown

Theresa May's "weakening grip on parliament over Brexit has been humiliatingly exposed over the past ten days", says The Guardian. On Monday she "capitulated to the leavers", accepting changes to her proposed customs partnership. Then on Tuesday night she only narrowly headed off a rebellion from Remainers that would have committed Britain to remaining within the customs union. It is clear that there is "only the narrowest of majorities for the muddled middle-way Brexit around which Mrs May tried to unite her government and her party at Chequers".

"The price [of these battles] in party unity and morale has been a heavy one, with recriminations and acrimony now embedded," says Allison Pearson in The Daily Telegraph. Still, despite the outrage from the Conservative right, her Chequers plan "remains largely intact". Now the summer break will give her "some breathing space to see if she and her new Brexit secretary, Dominic Raab, can make progress with the EU on the basis of the Chequers agreement".

Yet multiple ministerial resignations "highlight how pervasive the discontent with May's plan for Brexit is, and how far beyond the usual eurosceptic suspects it extends", says Patrick Maguire in the New Statesman. It looks like "nothing will convince them to support the Chequers plan". Hardline Brexiteers have also made it clear that unless May ditches her proposals, "the rebels' mission will shift to changing leader, rather than changing policy". "An explosive showdown is inevitable" so long as both sides keep to their "irreconcilable positions".

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