Final Say referendum is way out of the Brexit maze

Analysis: There are real signs that voters want to think again about what Brexit means

Andrew Grice
Saturday 23 March 2019 13:55 GMT
More than 700,000 protesters march on Westminster calling for a Final Say on Brexit deal

When the People’s Vote campaign was launched less than a year ago, it had the support of about 25 MPs. As the Commons prepares for the Brexit endgame and a series of crucial votes next week, a Final Say referendum is at the heart of the debate. It now has the backing of an estimated 250-280 MPs, giving it a real chance of becoming the way out of the Brexit maze.

The public appetite for a fresh vote was illustrated when The Independent launched its Final Say campaign in July. A petition with more than one million signatures was handed in at Downing Street in December. The first People’s Vote march in London in October attracted an estimated 670,000 people. Even pro-Brexit newspapers which had previously ignored the referendum movement were forced to take it seriously.

These campaigns helped to galvanise support at Westminster, notably inside Labour. After a heated internal debate, the party’s annual conference in September agreed that a public vote should be on the table if Jeremy Corbyn failed to secure his top priority of a general election.

Mr Corbyn has sent mixed signals about a referendum since. His close allies fear it would harm Labour’s prospects in Leave-voting areas in the north and midlands. But Labour’s grassroots members and many of its MPs back a Final Say vote. Mr Corbyn is edging closer to supporting an amendment by the Labour backbenchers Peter Kyle and Phil Wilson, which would make approval of Theresa May’s deal contingent on a referendum. It is likely to be voted on next week. Although supporters concede it might be 40 votes short of a majority for now, they insist it can still become “the last option standing” if Ms May’s deal and alternative options are all voted down (which many MPs think a real possibility).

Ms May has repeatedly spelt out her strong opposition to a referendum. She claims the idea has already been voted on, but this is misleading: more than 200 MPs abstained when Sarah Wollaston, the Independent Group MP, proposed a referendum, and was defeated by 334 votes to 85 this month. There are signs that Ms May is preparing to include a referendum in the “indicative Commons votes” expected next week. The Kyle-Wilson amendment probably offers campaigners their best shot.

The level of support for a referendum in opinion polls depends on the question and at least 12 different ones have been asked. People are less likely to favour a second referendum if they suspect it is a device to overturn the 2016 one. But they are more supportive of a “public vote” on Ms May’s deal. A YouGov survey this month for the People’s Vote campaign found that, by 56 per cent to 44 per cent, people want a new public vote on Britain’s future relationship with the EU to settle the issue (“don’t knows” excluded).

A poll of polls for NatCen by Sir John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University, suggests that if another referendum were held now, Remain would win 53 per cent and Leave 47 per cent of the votes.

Sir John said: “Voters are less likely to endorse the idea if asked whether there should be another ‘referendum’ than if they are asked whether the ‘public’ should be able to vote. The form of the referendum matters; Leave voters are, unsurprisingly, rather warmer to the idea of a referendum in which the choice is between whatever deal the government has negotiated and no deal than they are towards one where the choice is between a deal and remaining in the EU.”

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There are real signs that voters want to think again in the light of the facts about what Brexit really does mean which have emerged since 2016. According to YouGov, the number of people who believe with hindsight the decision to leave the EU was wrong, has risen from 48 per cent in 2016 to 55 per cent today. It is another strong argument for giving the public the Final Say.

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