181217 second brexit
Image Credit: Ramachandra Babu/©Gulf News

Like you, I remember the 2016 referendum campaign. In debate after debate it was made clear that leaving the European Union had certain iron logical consequences. It meant coming out of the customs union. It meant leaving the single market. There would be no halfway house, no limbo of the kind proposed by the Prime Minister’s “deal” — under which the UK will actually abandon control of its own laws and trade policy to Brussels. No one suggested that we should become a laughable non-voting EU member. No one campaigned for that.

People disagreed about the economic impact of leaving the EU, but everyone agreed that if we voted to leave we would really leave; and above all everyone agreed that this was it — that the vote before us was a once in a generation decision. Time and again the British people were told that before voting Leave they should weigh up every possible negative consequence for their children and their grandchildren, precisely because there could be no second chance. To reinforce the message the public were bombarded with warnings of the damage they would do to their incomes and the cause of world peace.

Those messages were actually pretty effective. There were millions of people who instinctively wanted to vote Leave, but who were too scared to do so. I met many of them. So it was really quite extraordinary that there were nonetheless 17.4 million people who thought hard and who decided that they could see a different and brighter future for their country outside the EU.

The people voted Leave in the full knowledge of what they were doing and with the categorical assurance of every prime minister and former prime minister — David Cameron, Gordon Brown, Tony Blair, John Major — that their views would be respected. They were told that whether they voted Leave or Remain, the result would be implemented.

In deciding how to vote, the people took those assurances seriously. So it is sickening to discover that senior figures in government are now actively canvassing the idea of a second referendum before Britain has even left the EU: not because of any doubt about what the people voted for or thought they voted for; not because the polls have even changed that much (for all the epic dithering of their leaders, the public will has remained remarkably sanguine and steadfast).

Feelings of betrayal

We had a referendum. It was a long and toxifying campaign. It divided the country. It caused an undue focus on the question of EU membership, normally far from the top of the list of the public’s concerns. The public would be utterly infuriated — and rightly — if we now put them through years of that misery and expense again.

They would know immediately that they were being asked to vote again simply because they had failed to give the “right” answer last time. They would suspect, with good grounds, that it was all a gigantic plot, engineered by politicians, to overturn their verdict. A second referendum would provoke instant, deep and ineradicable feelings of betrayal.

There is a much better way forward; there is a plan on which Parliament is agreed — and that is the PM’s withdrawal agreement but without the prison of the Irish backstop. We must be able to do our own trade deals; we must have control of our laws without losing Northern Ireland. The EU must bin the backstop, or at least give us a legally binding amendment to the text allowing for unilateral UK exit — nothing else is worth a bean.

They will give in, believe me; but only if we are ready to walk away. That means we must be not only willing to exit on World Trade terms, but that we have made the necessary preparations. We don’t want to leave without a deal. We can still get a very good deal. But we will only succeed if we hear now, from the very top, that we are genuinely ready for the alternative.

It is highly encouraging that at least some Cabinet ministers are coming around to the idea of a “managed no deal” as the best way forward. That is the message for our friends in Brussels. As for this babble about another referendum, it undermines our negotiating credibility further. Why should the EU change the backstop if they think we are already planning a second “People’s Vote” — a vote that treats the people with contempt?

— The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2018