“I want to be absolutely clear, this government will never accept a second referendum.”
This statement from the Prime Minister in September should have been the end of the matter. Alas, it wasn’t.
The so-called “people’s vote” scenario runs something like this. Enough Conservative MPs vote with Labour against any final EU agreement, defeating it in the House of Commons. Labour then tables a vote of no confidence in Theresa May, but that is defeated as Conservative MPs unite in opposition.
The end result, according to those advocating a second referendum, is deadlock and a political no man’s land which can only be resolved by asking the people.
But even if we end up with a deal that is rejected by parliament, or no deal at all because EU negotiations break down, the end result would in no way justify a second referendum.
People voted to leave the EU in 2016 in the full knowledge that negotiating our exit would not be easy – Brussels would want to deter any other EU country from going down the same road.
Nonetheless, Leave won by 52 per cent to 48 per cent. Most US presidential elections are much closer than that, but you don’t hear calls for a rerun. The rules of the game are clear, a win is a win. You don’t win the World Cup 1-0 and face calls the next day for a replay.
The argument for a second referendum now is that there has been a profound shift in sentiment since the referendum, especially with regards to membership of the customs union and Single Market, with no way forward except to ask the question again.
This is nothing more than sophisticated twaddle.
The way forward is the same way which was always there. At the end of March 2019, the UK leaves the EU and reverts to WTO trade terms. Tariff and non-tariff barriers, previously determined at EU level, go back to being under our control.
The Brexit referendum in 2016 was all about leaving the customs union and Single Market, because these were the principle facets of membership. Supporters of a people’s vote are claiming that we need a second referendum because the first one is about to be implemented.
It is possible that these advocates for a second vote, both in the UK and the EU, have been swayed by events of the past. In the 2000s, referendums in France, Ireland and the Netherlands rejected EU treaties, only for the results to then be reversed in a second ballot.
But the situation in Britain is very different – and my sense is that any rerun in the UK would surprise EU supporters by hardening the vote to leave. There has not been any decisive shift back towards Remain over the past two years, and any second vote would be a powerful motivator and call to arms for leavers.
Most importantly, the biggest plebiscite in UK political history cannot just be set aside and ignored. To do so would create 17m disenfranchised voters, convinced that the political class does not represent them. That’s a lot of angry people.
The protesters who marched in London last weekend calling for a second referendum are playing with fire – and so are the politicians who continue to encourage them.