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No Theresa May, Brexit without the option of a second referendum would be a gross betrayal of British democracy

The only saving grace for Theresa May is that the Labour Party appears equally divided – and not only on Brexit

Monday 03 September 2018 13:30 BST
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David Davis: Theresa May's Chequers deal 'almost worse than being in the EU'

After the relative quiet of the summer, the noise of Westminster politics is starting to rumble once again. Brexit, inevitably – and rightly – will dominate the autumn debates.

In an attempt to strike an authoritative note at the start of the new term, the prime minister has – in an article for The Telegraph – said she will not agree to compromises on the Chequers proposals that are not in the “national interest”. That is hardly an unexpected pronouncement.

What is more striking is that Ms May has addressed the question of a second referendum, insisting she will not tolerate a further vote. Referring to the original referendum, she notes that voters “trusted their voices would be heard”, which is true of course. But it is also the case that there was no definitive vision at that stage for what Brexit would mean in reality. Plainly we know more now than we did in 2016 about the practical obstacles and likely consequences.

As such, the prime minister’s additional contention – that “to ask the question all over again would be a gross betrayal of our democracy” – is fundamentally flawed. For one thing, a second referendum would not be a case of asking the same question again: it would be predicated on a deal in principle having been agreed. For another, this notion of democracy being “betrayed” – repeated most often by those who would leave the European Union at any cost – is as disingenuous as it is facile. It ignores the most central tenet of democracy, which is that citizens, who give politicians (and policies) their authority, can change their minds.

Indeed, as the Conservative donor Sir Simon Robertson has put it in an interview with The Observer, the argument put forward by Ms May and others that the people cannot be consulted once more is “complete balderdash”.

Still, the fact that the prime minister has decided to set out her stall on the issue of a second referendum is an indication that the pressure for the people to be given a final say on Brexit is beginning to tell. Nearly three-quarters of a million individuals have now signed The Independent’s petition for the right to vote on whether to accept whatever deal – if any – the government can agree with Brussels. And on 20 October many of those who support our campaign will come to London, as The Independent joins forces with the People’s Vote to organise a March for the Future, to make a visible statement in support of a second referendum.

From the prime minister’s point of view, the thing that will do most to restore her authority, in her party and more broadly, is real progress towards concluding a departure deal with the remaining EU members. But although the Brexit minister, Dominic Raab, is reported to have had positive discussions with Michel Barnier last week, it is all too obvious there remain several key issues on which agreement is still some way off.

What’s more, critics within the Conservative Party are already circling with renewed energy: their annual party conference could be the scene of some serious bloodletting. Nick Boles is the latest to set out a withdrawal plan that differs from the prime minister’s, while David Davis has reiterated his belief that the Chequers proposals are worse than a no-deal Brexit. The divisions between Brexiteers such as Liam Fox and those like Philip Hammond, who warn of a cliff-edge departure, are widening.

The only saving grace for Theresa May is that the Labour Party appears equally divided – and not only on Brexit. The row over antisemitism seems, if anything, to be intensifying; talk of Labour splitting is back on the agenda.

Quite what the rest of this year will bring in the political sphere is difficult to predict. It will not be dull; there may be some moments of madness. But one thing is clear: as the Brexit deadline approaches, calls for the British people to be given a final say on the departure deal will inexorably grow.

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