The battle to stay in the European Union was lost long before 2016
ONLY the most dogmatic opponent of the European Union could deny there is a coherent argument for a vote on the final Brexit deal.
Whatever proposal Theresa May brings back to Westminster, it will not appease soft Remainers, or satisfy lifelong Brexiters who got into politics to unstaple the UK from Brussels.
Single market membership will not be on offer, nor will the Prime Minister be able to satisfy the Tory Right by guaranteeing the UK will be able to enter into new free trade agreements.
The behaviour of Leave campaigners during the referendum also adds weight to the People’s Vote campaign for another referendum. Not only did Vote Leave break the spending rules, but the National Crime Agency is investigating Brexit “bad boy” Arron Banks. The victory looks tarnished.
More importantly, public opinion appears to be shifting. In a recent Survation poll, Remain led Leave by 54% to 46% and over 100 local authority areas that voted for Brexit had changed sides. Against this backdrop, why not have another referendum and let the people decide?
However, even after a positive few weeks for the People’s Vote campaign, which has been emboldened by a 700,000 strong march in London, the chances of another referendum range between highly unlikely and remote.
It’s not just the practical difficulty of cobbling together a parliamentary majority for another vote – an obstacle largely created by the euroscepticism of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.
It’s not just because the most persuasive advocates of another referendum are politicians like Tony Blair and John Major whose best days are, to put it kindly, not in front of them. And it’s not simply because last week’s poll can easily be downplayed. Like all snapshots, it measured the width of opinions, not their depth. Over 50% of voters may support Remain, but it does not follow that a referendum is a top priority.
Like the Remain campaign in 2016, the People’s Vote is a top-down campaign led by political insiders and the already-converted. Just as supporters of independence falsely believe large rallies are a sign of momentum, so too was the London march mainly an event for folk whose minds were already made up.
But the main hurdle for those who want a second referendum – the cold, hard fact that no amount of opinion polls can disguise – is the lack of an emotional connection to the EU. Whatever one’s opinion on the United Kingdom – and there is a “diversity” of views in Scotland – the UK is defined by its shared institutions. The NHS. The BBC. Our armed services. Even the SNP Government’s independence White Paper put a heavy emphasis on keeping the monarchy. The UK is about more than Barnett consequentials.
The same is true of the United States. Despite it being more divided than ever, most Republicans and Democrats revere their Constitution and the Bill of Rights. They respect the institution of the presidency, and value their political system’s checks and balances.
No such love exists for the EU, which has been treated by the UK as a self-service buffet from which we can gorge on visa-free travel and cured Spanish meats. It is a purely transactional relationship that is counted in pounds and pence.
The EU’s institutions do not warm our hearts or lift out souls. Its Parliament, with some justification, is seen as a cesspit of corruption and special interests. The Commission, and the Council of Ministers, seem distant and secretive. Europe’s flag only gets noticed during the Ryder Cup.
It was this 40-year failure to make an emotional case for European integration that made Brexit possible. Up against the ugly waves of backlash politics and nationalism, the sandbags protecting the UK’s membership were found to be weak and the EU was washed away. The referendum gave the Brexiters the chance to tell voters they were getting nothing from the buffet.
The campaign for a People’s Vote will go on. More MPs will sign up, some voters will change their minds and the media will cover it extensively. But there is a feeling the battle for the UK to stay in the EU was lost long before 2016.