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The long and winding road back from the Brexit brink

Protesters take part in a March for Europe rally against Brexit in Piccadilly, central London. Picture date: Saturday 25 March, 2017. Photo credit should read: Matt Crossick/ EMPICS Entertainment. - Credit: Empics Entertainment

Ignore the naysayers, there is a way to cancel our departure from the EU, argues Jonathan Lis.

As the simple passage of time ruthlessly exposes Brexit’s rancid dishonesty and illuminates its epochal futility, it also emboldens the movement to stop the calamity altogether.

For months, the government and right-wing media silenced Remainers with nativist denunciations of split allegiances, non-citizenship and suspect multiculturalism. Now, campaigners are finding a clearer and wider voice. But we must confront reality. If the road to Brexit is paved with jobs, livelihoods and communities, the road away from it will be blocked by the full force of government, big media and traditional propaganda.

Imagine an Alpine pass. These are the hairpin bends. We must clear each one.

First, a referendum. It is not a legal requirement in order to cancel Brexit, but most agree it is a political one. The prime minister could technically cancel Article 50 at her discretion – or parliament could force her hand – but neither would survive the likely public fall-out.

The circumstances for holding a new vote still seem remote. Although some opinion polls indicate a majority in favour, the numbers are currently nowhere near high enough, and many Remain MPs are deeply sceptical about the public’s appetite. So, a political campaign must persuade voters that Brexit can and should be stopped.

Next, the government must agree. The signs are not good. The prime minister has described a new vote as ‘betraying the people’ – as though a new will of the people would be betraying the old one. Her position is almost obscene: a referendum may be foolish, risky and divisive, but self-evidently not undemocratic. No matter. It is near inconceivable that Theresa May would ever agree to it, still less any of her obvious Conservative successors. Even if she did, would she really throw her weight behind a Remain victory? The government would have to fall and a general election follow. Jeremy Corbyn, of course, has also declared himself opposed to a new vote.

Could a referendum take place without the government’s agreement? Some campaigners argue that an amendment could be added to the Withdrawal Bill. Even if it passed, it would demand a herculean struggle to clear the legislation through the Commons without the government’s backing and allocation of parliamentary time. If parliament voted down the Brexit bill altogether, there is also no guarantee that a subsequent referendum question would offer an option to remain. Ministers might want to give voters simply the choice of a bad deal or cliff-edge. Unhelpfully, swathes of backbenchers still appear to hold the idea of 2016’s ‘will of the people’ as sacrosanct. For too many MPs, we must leave come what may. Others, particularly on the Tory side, must convince them.

The next step involves two key agreements from the EU. At the most basic level, Brussels must agree in principle to revoke Article 50 if the government requests it. Although they are likely to do so, a legal challenge may force a reference to the European Court of Justice.

In the meantime, a referendum requires primary legislation which would take many months to debate and implement, and a statutory campaign period would have to follow. Even if we started the process now, it would take us beyond next March. Consequently the European Council also needs to agree, unanimously, an extension to the Article 50 notice period. This brings numerous complications, such as British candidates standing for election to the European Parliament next spring. A request from the UK would therefore necessitate time-consuming negotiation. It’s eminently feasible, but not easy.

An alternative to Article 50 extension is to leave the EU and then apply to re-join it under Article 49. It’s not a strategy for the faint-hearted. There are no guarantees that the EU will offer us the same benefits that we currently enjoy, and commitments to join Schengen or the euro – even to lose our rebate – could prove unsellable.

Others contend, with occasional cynicism, that voters may need the King Lear treatment. That is, to endure the storm on the heath to realise they shouldn’t have surrendered the kingdom. We may ultimately conclude that it is more important to preserve the economy than watch it go under to prove a point.

Let us assume parliament agrees in principle to a referendum. There will be months of rows about the composition of the electorate and the ability of Cabinet ministers to dissent from the government’s view.

Then comes the real fun: the actual campaign. On one hand, little will have changed. Although our economy is hardly performing well, it has not crashed. And at the time of the referendum, we will still be in the EU. Electoral law will still permit official campaigns to disseminate any number of naked lies, with total impunity, provided they do not libel individuals.

And so the new Vote Leave will resurrect ‘taking back control’, fabricating false dreams of a new trading realm and false nightmares of an EU monolith. Campaigners will riff on the giddy rhetoric of both anti-colonialism and neo-imperialism.

Remainers, meanwhile, will have to argue for a near-status quo ante three years in the past, and prove Project Fear’s imminent reality with slogans and trust alone.

As in 2016, pro-EU campaigners must promise change and a positive offer while asking people to keep things roughly the way things were in an organisation most of them never cared for. Remain will once again be cast as the conservative option in an age of revolution.

On the other hand, we can rely on some changed circumstances. Britain has been gripped by domestic xenophobia and international humiliation. Some Leavers who never foresaw the chaos would now opt to stay.

A number of Remainers, too, would insist on seeing the original result implemented. All kinds of people would wish to end Britain’s long period of political upheaval. But in the short term, remaining will not achieve this.

And this, in reality, is the rub. Brexit can be reversed, but not erased. If we do vote to remain, a ‘neverendum’ may be the least of our worries. A wave of political disengagement and resentment, eagerly encouraged by the right-wing press, will span decades and entrench conflicts of class, age, and geography. Millions of voters who firmly embraced Brexit will never forgive the apparent liberal establishment which conspired against them.

If we lose the referendum – and we may – Brexit will strike potently and permanently. No amount of suffering will be enough to stop it. The people are not wrong twice.

But democracy must prevail, and democracy must be about more than preserving a moment of time in aspic. In our ordinary lives, events happen, moments pass, circumstances alter. When they do, we re-evaluate our surroundings, make new decisions in the present, or change our minds about the past. The road diverting us from Brexit’s cliff-edge may take us perilously close to it, and may yet propel us off it, but if we have the chance for a better future, we must take it. This is our nation’s life, and it is worth saving.

And so to the battle of our age. Stopping Brexit is much harder than starting it. The referendum will be brutally fought and will bitterly divide. It will be hell. Let us get on with it.

Jonathan Lis is deputy director of the think tank British Influence

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