Without a doubt, leaving the European Union and altering the vast sections of the UK statutes that are impinged upon by the UK’s 43-year membership of the bloc is the most significant event in Britain’s political history since the Second World War. The Brexit referendum itself remains highly contentious for a number of reasons:
- whilst the vote was mandated by a heavy majority in parliament, it was only ever “advisory” in law;
- a simple majority was accepted (on an advisory vote) to authorise such a major change rather than requiring a super-majority and a legally binding foundation in the first place;
- whilst 52% of voters backed Brexit on the day, this was only 37% of those eligible to vote; British subjects living abroad (excluding Ireland and Gibraltar) were not given a vote and arguably they would have swayed the outcome in favour of the Remain position;
- pledges made by Leave were based on lies and the key promise (by implication, if nothing else) that the NHS would get an additional £350 million a week if the UK left the bloc were knowingly insincere;
- The full extent of the consequences of the vote was neither appreciated by politicians nor the general public at the time of the vote and has only slowly emerged since;
- Whilst there may be a mandate to leave the EU the exact end state was neither discussed or described in the plebiscite
- Leave suggested that if they lost by a 48 to 52% margin, it would represent “unfinished business”
In short, the process is open to some serious criticisms, not least of which is that there never was a proper economic plan for Brexit. However, the government has been clear that it will not grant a second referendum either to confirm the original result or to approve the deal (or lack thereof) arrived at between the UK and the EU post Brexit.
One of the prime movers behind Brexit was the former UKIP leader, Nigel Farage. He met with Michel Barnier last week, claiming to speak for the 17.4 million Leave voters and that their concerns over immigration were being overlooked. He remains an MEP, but no longer leads UKIP and indeed, the current leadership strenuously disagrees with the position he took only yesterday. He suggested that there should be a further referendum, which he claims would give Leave a decisive mandate, to settle the matter for a generation. His call has been backed by some sections of the Leave alliance and welcomed (ironically) by Remain supporters.
The position is significant because government would find it hard to argue against the proposition if it is seen to have broad support. The Liberal Democrats have been pushing for a second referendum on the final deal which would have a remain option on the ballot. Whilst the Labour leadership is opposed to a second vote, many in the party in parliament and the country would back it (80% of Labour supporters support remaining in the EU according to polling). The vote would be supported by the SNP in Westminster and in the Scottish and Northern Ireland Assemblies where a clear majority of citizens voted to remain.
With many (including Philip Hammond and David Davis) warning of the dangers of a no deal scenario, adopting a get out of jail free clause may become irresistible, particularly if the ECJ rules that the UK can unilaterally withdraw its notice to leave the EU by rescinding its Article 50 notification which, on the face of it must be the UK’s sovereign right up until notice expires in March 2019.
It remains (pardon the pun) to be seen if the idea of a second vote gains traction, but the Leave campaign groups have reasserted their confidence that they would win if a further vote was called for, despite an apparent shift in public opinion against Brexit. The Remain constituency is just as certain that it would carry the day. It seems that we are living in interesting times, as the Chinese curse would have it.