There’s no two ways about it, the Referendum has left Britain traumatised. After two years of lies, incessant bickering and continuously rehashed red lines, the country now cradles itself in a corner, our collective instinct begging us to learn from the past and run a mile from the mere suggestion of another popular vote.
Surely then a second referendum is the last thing we need? Until recently, that was the view widely shared by politicians and voters alike. Away from the Lib Dems, who undeterred have harked on about a ‘people’s vote’ since the very beginning, a consensus swiftly formed around Westminster in the immediate aftermath of the Referendum that indicated it was better to move on, grit our teeth and bear it to help heal the wounds inflicted on our national psyche. After all, like it or not, that’s how democracy works.
What’s more, with trust in Whitehall and the political establishment at an all-time low, there remains a palpable fear in Parliament of rocking the boat. Any attempts, perceived or real, to undermine, subvert, or water down the ‘will of the people’ will only erode the electorate’s faith further, perhaps irreparably.
Indeed, it’s not as if the case for rerunning the vote is new. Over the last two years there have been plenty of credible, persuasive arguments. Voters were lied to. People didn’t know what they were voting for. VoteLeave broke election spending rules. Whilst each of these do damage to the legitimacy of the vote, and whip up some protest, they are all, ultimately, unquantifiable accusations.
In truth, there’s no telling how much the Leave campaign’s overspend affected the final result, or how many voters were duped by promises of a stronger Britain reclaiming its place in the world. What those advocating a second vote have lacked are cold hard facts. Until now.
In recent weeks we have seen more and more politicians coming out in favour of a second referendum, thanks not to some cynical masterplan, hatched long ago to kill Brexit (as a clique of tin-hat wearing Brexiteers continue to contend), but because they realise the parliamentary arithmetic doesn’t stack up.
As the recent votes in the Commons have shown, there’s no majority for any one type of departure. Every time Theresa May attempts to soften her position and strike a compromise, the ERG wing of her Party threaten to bring down the Government. When she pushes too hard, her pro-European Tory rebels do just that – rebel. The PM might be able to chip away a few votes from the opposition here and there, but that won’t be enough to see her through. Her hands are tied; she needs to break the gridlock.
With time ticking, it’s becoming abundantly clear that this can only be achieved by seeking a renewed mandate from the people. A general election is one way to go about that, but stung by the crushing, humiliating failure of her last spontaneous decision to go to the ballot box, it’s one Theresa May is extremely unlikely to risk again. Besides, there’s no appetite in Parliament, amongst her own MPs or those from other parties, to go down this route. It could cost them their job.
Conservative backbenchers of course have the option of forcing a vote of no confidence in the Prime Minister, but behind the posturing and machoism of the ERG, there remain doubts as to how many of their numbers are prepared to go full Brutus unchained. Even if they succeeded in tabling the motion, it’s unclear whether enough of their colleagues would share their enthusiasm for a new face behind No10.
One route remains: a second referendum. Unlike the 2016 vote, this should lead explicitly to an agreed negotiating position, not further obscurity, offering voters a clear choice – stay; negotiate a soft Brexit, using the EFTA as a template, for example; or leave with no deal. No ambiguity, no room for interpretation. A clear direction of travel.
Undoubtedly, were the Government bold enough to adopt this approach, there would be calls of sabotage, and inevitably, trust in the political class would be undermined. But for many of the 48%, faith in the system has already taken a hammering. At least this path would legitimise the vote one way or another. That is why, not all that long ago, a double referendum was the option favoured by the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg, David Davis, and John Redwood.
This miasma of equivocation and self-doubt can’t continue. The Prime Minister should take decisive action, starting with heeding this earlier advice of some of her now most vocal critics. A second referendum must follow.