Brussels: Project fear is becoming project reality. Each day brings new evidence of the dire consequences of Brexit. Sometimes it takes the form of a big company announcing that it’s moving operations from the UK to the continent, taking hundreds or thousands of jobs with it. It could be JP Morgan or Goldman Sachs or Samsung, depending on the day of the week.
Or it may be a plea from a key industry voicing its fears of a mismanaged departure from the EU. This week it was medicine and aviation. Eight pharmaceutical trade associations wrote a joint letter warning that the supply of “life-saving medicines” faces disruption, while UK airports cautioned that all flights to Europe could be suspended if there’s no deal to replace the EU ‘open skies’ agreement.
A fortnight ago came figures showing that investment in the UK car industry had plummeted, with uncertainty over Brexit the culprit. Meanwhile, MPs are nervously realising that when they voted to trigger Article 50 they also voted to leave Euratom, the body that safeguards the movement of nuclear materials. That’s scary enough, but if we’re outside Euratom medical equipment involved in x-rays and radiotherapy could be stopped at the border.
The buckets of cold water keep coming. It might be the Office for Budget Responsibility bracing us for billions in lost revenue, or the head of the National Audit Office noting the risk that the government’s Brexit strategy could come apart “like a chocolate orange”.
The former minister Andrew Adonis rates Brexit a mistake on a par with appeasement of the Nazis, while the Financial Time’s Martin Wolf warns that Britain, given its enfeebled government, is incapable of managing Brexit and that “calamity will follow”. Ah, but surely all that lot are just whingeing remainers. Except the arch-leavers themselves have either become strangely quiet or else now implicitly admit that Brexit is a disaster unfolding in slow motion.
Dominic Cummings, the anarchic genius behind the Vote Leave campaign, caused a stir when he confessed that Brexit was a task as difficult as defeating the Nazis — those outraged by Adonis’s comparison should take note — and caused a bigger stir when he admitted that voting leave may turn out to have been an “error”. Less noticed was David Davis’s dismissal of talk of a possible Brexit domino effect. “I don’t think anyone is likely to follow us down this route,” he said.
But if the sense is growing, even in unexpected quarters, that Brexit is indeed an act of national self-destruction, to be avoided at all costs, how can it be stopped? Conversations I’ve had this week with key figures among the Conservatives, Labour and the SNP suggest the path is strewn with obstacles and deep pitfalls — but there may just be a way.
The difficulties are legion, but the most important is the one raised by my colleague John Harris. He rightly wrote that simply to ignore the referendum result of June 2016 would be to inflame the very rage at an unlistening establishment that drove the leave vote in the first place. It would fuel a resurgent Faragism even worse than the original. So Brexit must not be thwarted by a clubby political class conspiring to bury last year’s verdict.
There is only one way it can be done, and that is by the people themselves. A democratic choice can be voided only by another democratic choice, expressed either in a general election — or a second referendum.
The first option is all but impossible to envisage. It would require the two main parties to divide on clear, binary lines: the Tories for Brexit, Labour against. The bald, if circular, logic is that Labour would never dare make such an offer to the electorate, for fear it would be accused of defying the will of the people as expressed in June 2016, as well as its own leave voters.
Which leaves a referendum. For now, next to no one will talk of such a thing publicly. Privately, it’s a different story. “I’ve never said I want a second referendum, even though I desperately do,” is how one remainer Labour MP puts it. Next to no one will talk of such a thing publicly. Privately, it’s a different story. The argument of democratic principle is clear. June 2016 was a decision to move house. But we had no inkling of what our new home would look like. We surely need to look around before we take the plunge — in case, once we’ve seen the state of the kitchen and the upstairs bathroom, we decide to stay put.
Put another way, once the Brexit terms are known and settled, Britons deserve a straight, up-or-down choice. This argument has extra force after last month’s election. It cannot be right to leave such a momentous decision in the hands of a government with no mandate and next to no majority. It simply lacks the political, even moral, authority to negotiate and decide alone on an arrangement that will shape this country’s future for decades.
As Nigel Farage and the others used to say, year in and year out, the people must have their say. There is a tactical case too. The current Labour fudge on Brexit may have been useful on June 8, but it cannot be sustained indefinitely. The only position that could hope to unite Labour’s leavers and remainers is a shared resolve to let the people decide — a referendum serving once again as Jim Callaghan’s “little rubber life raft” for a divided party, just as it did in 1975. Labour could well find an ally in the Scottish Nationalists. A senior SNP figure told me this week that Scottish independence all but depends on Brexit being cancelled: without the economic safety net of the single market, Scots won’t risk a leap out of the UK. Only a second EU vote could provide that reassurance.
The key issue is timing. Remainers agree that they’ll get only one shot at this. They need to wait until public opinion has shifted unmistakably, until it’s clear that avoiding a self-harming Brexit has become the settled will. The complication is that that moment may not arrive, and the terms of the future deal may not be clear, until after March 2019 — by which time the Article 50 clock will have run out and the UK will have left the EU.
From that point on, any referendum would not be about staying in but rejoining, which could be a very different proposition. A referendum before March 2019 is, admittedly, hard to imagine; but one during the immediate transition period that follows, when things may still be in limbo, is plausible. In those circumstances, the EU27 may well be amenable to treating our re-entry as a special case.
The point is, there are few immovable objects in politics, not if the will is there to shift them. Should we conclude that the path taken a year ago was the wrong one, we can take another. We are a sovereign people. Which means it’s up to us.