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New referendum is idea whose time could well come

by Luke Lythgoe | 11.12.2017

People won’t demand a vote on the final Brexit deal unless they are first convinced it’s going to be dreadful. Pro-Europeans should put the lion’s share of their effort into persuading the electorate that this is the case, rather than pushing now for a new referendum.

That’s not to say that the debate on a new referendum in Parliament today following a 137,000-signature petition, ultimately rejected by both Labour and Conservative MPs, isn’t serving the purpose of keeping the issue alive. The same goes for a bill calling for the people to have the final say being tabled by Labour backbencher Geraint Davies. Though that too will probably prove premature.

Theresa May has said a referendum on her deal, assuming she clinches one next year, is “out of the question”. As things stand, Tory MPs on both sides of the debate will back their leader. Fear of the government collapsing and Jeremy Corbyn sweeping into Downing Street is keeping potentially rebellious MPs in check.

A referendum would have more support if MPs knew there was a clear public desire for it. The good news is that support is growing: a nationwide Survation poll last week showed 50% in favour of a referendum and 34% against.

Pro-Europeans can hasten this trend by explaining how Brexit is a thoroughly bad idea. We will not get the fairer society most people want – and the prime minister says she wants – if we destroy our economy.

Even before we’ve quit the EU, the omens aren’t good. May’s social mobility commission resigned en masse this month, while the chairman of a large London NHS trust which has slipped into special measures, resigned over the weekend citing the government’s “unrealistic” approach to NHS finances. Meanwhile, prices are rising, wages are being squeezed, growth is slowing and business investment is frozen.

We also need to attack the Tories’ botched Brexit. They are playing a bad hand appallingly and they are heading in the wrong direction – a Canada-style deal that TUC boss Frances O’Grady rightly argues would be bad for British workers.

If we can persuade the people that we’re getting a thoroughly bad Brexit – and it’s not too late to change our minds – the natural thing will be to check whether voters really want to quit when we know what Brexit means. Even if the time is not yet ripe for a new vote, it is an idea whose time could well come.

This article has been updated since publication to include the outcome of Parliament’s debate on the second referendum petition.

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Edited by Hugo Dixon