Those who voted Remain in Britain’s June 2016 referendum on leaving the European Union point to signs of remorse among a sufficiently large proportion of Leavers as a reason to roll back Brexit. This point of view is an error of judgement about the repercussions for Britain and its future.
Former Prime Minister David Cameron’s ill-advised referendum inflicted a deep wound and sowed animosity among people who otherwise had relatively little to quarrel about. A second referendum only makes sense if it looks like it can heal this wound. There is no evidence to suggest this coveted outcome could be achieved.
A second referendum is more likely to aggravate the wound and risks throwing Britain into disorder. Just imagine how British politics will react if the turnout is around 65% – it was 72% in June 2016 – and 51% vote Remain. What happens then? Can a third referendum be ruled out?
A second referendum should be called only if the electorate views it as the right thing to do. There is one course of events that can produce that situation.
Suppose that Prime Minister Theresa May and her government negotiate what they regard to be the best possible future relationship between Britain and the EU, but factions in the ruling Conservative party and opposition in parliament produce a stalemate blocking ‘a meaningful vote’. In that case the prime minister could go to the voters and say her government had, as promised, delivered Brexit. The only option is to appeal directly to the people, not about Brexit itself, but about the terms negotiated by the government.
Most people would understand this. Indeed, many might argue it is the natural follow-up to the first referendum. No one knew how life would be outside the EU. Now they do, and the question is whether this is what they looked for. My instinct is that a clear majority would vote Yes to the terms. Not necessarily because they like them, but because the prevailing instinct would be to close this chapter and move on.
Such a policy requires boldness and will only succeed on two conditions. First, the government must close ranks around May and campaign vigorously for acceptance of the terms agreed. Whether ministers do so depends on how the prime minister performs on the second condition – she must confront both the opposition and recalcitrant Conservatives. May needs to come across as prime ministerial not only in words but also in deeds, risking her political life and showing that the country ranks above her party.
If May can do this, she may emerge as a great prime minister having taken on a seemingly impossible task, rescuing Britain from political chaos and healing the wounds of the first referendum. Sadly, her performances since the summer of 2016 imply this is unlikely to happen.
If she fails to act decisively, Britain’s politicians will fight for power in a vacuum, destroying what is left of public trust in government. There are too many politicians vying for authority without much idea of what they will use it for, ignoring the reality confronting Britain.
Joergen Oerstroem Moeller is Senior Research Fellow, ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute, and a former State Secretary at the Danish foreign ministry.