GAWAIN TOWLER: Would a second EU referendum help Brexiteers?
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Would a People's Vote actually be in the interests of Brexiteers as well? Former UKIP official GAWAIN TOWLER on an intriguing school of thought.
There is a niche school of thought out there that another UK referendum on membership of the EU would be in the interests not just of Remainers – for obvious reasons – but also of ardent Leavers. The argument is that the current version of Brexit being pioneered by the prime minister ('soft Brexit', 'Brexit in name only', 'vassal status' – call it what you will) is not what they voted for. The logic goes that, after two years of faffing by an incompetent, divided, and essentially still pro-Remain government, the Brexiteers need to take back control once again – this time from ministers who still don't believe in Brexit. They could do this, so runs the argument, by making common cause with those who are agitating for a People's Vote (note the dread use of the capitalised 'People's', straight out of Blair's handbook). By succeeding in another vote, they could not only overcome the Remain resistance but also produce a more definitive vision of Brexit and our departure from the EU.
For Leavers, though, such logic is flawed. The suggestion, of course, is straight out of the EU's playbook. After all, its traditional method of moving past problematic referendum results is simply to have another one (Ireland), or make small, cosmetic changes to pass through national parliaments without bothering to trouble the people again (France and Netherlands).
To have a new vote now would, for those who voted to Leave, be absurd, for a series of reasons. Primarily, the decks would be even more stacked against them than they were at the time of the 2016 vote.
The ranks of those on the Remain side would include everybody that was there before: the unions, big business, academia, most of the press, the vast majority of both Houses of Parliament. And lots and lots of money. In the Leave camp will be a third of Tory MPs, a handful of Labour MPs, some entrepreneurs, and ordinary people.
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In the last referendum, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove served as Vote Leave figureheads, but the vast majority of the foot soldiers out on the street stalls and drumming up support for Brexit were 'kippers. And despite a post-Chequers UKIP mini-surge, the numbers are just not there today. Despite all sorts of lurid stories you might have read, the fact remains that the Leave campaign was chronically outspent by the Remain side. If we were to face a re-run, cash for the Leave camp would have to come from the foot soldiers, given that private donations now come with a hefty tax bill – something Remain corporate donors would not have to face. I spoke with one large Leave donor at the weekend who, though still utterly committed to the cause, is worried about the tax implications of fighting a new campaign.
But even without the logistical problems for Leavers of gearing up for another referendum, there is a more fundamental flaw to the argument: there is no need. Of course the Remainers want one. They lost. Comprehensively. Despite what patronising critics of the 2016 result now say, people knew what they were voting for. Yes, parliamentary politics and poor government have presented a problem on the path to Brexit. But ultimately the politicians will have to catch up with where the people are.
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All that said, the idea of a follow-up referendum should not be dismissed out of hand. Leavers do have to be reasonable, after all. But can I suggest that we should wait for the same period we had to wait between the first two EU referendums? We gave the country decades to allow its membership to bed in, so we should have some patience with independence. I look forward to a third referendum in 39 years. By 2057, let's see how freedom has worked for the nation.
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