Is the tide turning on Brexit?

PUBLISHED: 11:26 25 May 2018 | UPDATED: 11:27 25 May 2018

Former foreign secretary David Miliband joined other prominent Remainers in a bid to stop a hard Brexit

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The country is agreed, says CHRIS WRIGHT. Hard Brexit is unthinkable

Last week, David Miliband warned that Jeremy Corbyn would be the ‘midwife of hard Brexit’ if he does not commit his party to staying in the single market. Meanwhile, both Nick Clegg, the former Liberal Democrat leader, and Nicky Morgan, the former Conservative education secretary, urged MPs to back staying in the single market and the customs union after we leave the EU. And it won’t have escaped anyone’s notice that support for Brexit has plunged among the Irish, with whom we have strong historical and cultural ties: the surge suggests that, like much of the United Kingdom, they didn’t fully understand the ramifications of leaving the European Union. The most interesting recent contribution to the debate, however, came from an unexpected place. MEP Daniel Hannan, a prominent Conservative Brexiteer, said that if MPs vote to keep the UK in the customs union, he would back a second referendum on European membership. It would allow the public, he said, to have the ‘final say’.

Hannan’s comments came from a decidedly Eurosceptic angle. His rationale is that if we are to remain in the customs union but not in the EU we would be ‘plainly worse off than we are now’ and we ‘would need a new mandate, either in the form of a general election or another referendum.’ Nevertheless his comments are significant, because Hannan is one of the first Brexiteers to put pressure on the government to hold a second referendum. Previously, almost all the pressure has come from the ‘Remain’ side of the fence.

Hannan’s words followed the events of the Tuesday before, when large numbers of both Labour and Conservative peers disobeyed instructions from their whips and voted for an amendment which returned the EU withdrawal bill to the Commons with instructions to consider keeping the UK in the EU’s single market. Martin Kettle, writing for the Guardian, said that ‘this could be the moment’ for Tory moderates. Lord Mandelson described a ‘gathering storm’ on Brexit that was likely to break into a political crisis.

If a second referendum were held, surveys suggest that ‘Remain’ would win out. More than 200,000 readers of local newspapers responded to The Big Brexit Survey in April, and the headlines betrayed an epidemic of ‘buyers’ remorse’: all across the country, more and more Britons are admitting that Brexit hasn’t gone to plan and that the right decision is to remain in the bloc or at least the single market. Needless to say that if Theresa May really does want to follow the ‘will of the people’, she should bear in mind that wills can –– and do –– change. Perhaps she should also note that another referendum means more democracy, not less, as well.

If the tide is indeed turning on Brexit, then we who believe our departure from the European Union represents an act of national self-sabotage must do more than admire the view. The idea that Brexit is a mistake of historical proportions is, in at least my experience, shared by much of the business community, the exceptions usually being those who sell to countries outside of Europe. And in the music industry, the proportion of those who wanted, and still want, to remain in Europe is 96%; I have met only two or three people among my industry contacts who are in favour of Brexit and they are all retired, white males over the age of 65. It’s a very small pool.

Now is the time to pile on the pressure, to be vocal, and to encourage the hundreds of thousands feeling a creeping sense of unease about the direction in which Brexit is going to speak their minds. Daniel Hannan has, with his comments, illustrated that it is not only Remainers who can find reason to feel aggrieved with the current state of Brexit. Now we can see that few (if any) of the truly important and practical issues were ironed out ahead of the vote. What will happen to Gibraltar, for instance? And the Northern Irish border? Now we are finally debating these issues an increasing number of people are understanding the complexities involved and the likelihood of a negative outcome. There is no shame in changing your mind and updating your viewpoint as new information becomes available; on the contrary, it is admirable. But even those Leavers who are perhaps too proud to say they got it wrong have been offered a blueprint by Mr. Hannan.

Theresa May is now facing intractable problems –– when a foreign secretary is able to denounce his prime minister publicly, ‘discord’ in government seems a laughable understatement –– which means she may be forced to relinquish the goal of party unity. If she does so, she could make a direct appeal to Labour ‘moderates’ and potentially gather enough votes to force through a soft Brexit. Given the close referendum result, that seems a far more democratic expression of Brexit than cutting all ties. Or perhaps Peter Mandelson is right when he says that only the public will be able to settle the coming crisis. A second referendum once looked impossible, and now, according to many including Labour’s Brussels leader Richard Corbett, ‘demand is growing’. Enough pressure, from both sides, may force the vote. But there is one thing that it seems the country––if not the government––can agree on: a hard Brexit is unthinkable. And this gives me hope for a future that looks less bleak.

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