If one hoary old cliché could sum up the entire Brexit debacle it would be this: be careful what you wish for. Those who backed the original ‘Leave’ campaign, which swayed just over half the country into believing that if we left the European Union the NHS would benefit to the tune of £350m, must be feeling slightly rueful.
The claims, promoted by the likes of Boris Johnson, were later found to be widely exaggerated. And there were many more, including spurious promises on immigration, which turned out to have no rational grounding in reality.
Before we even start on the mess that has followed as the Prime Minister has shuttled backwards and forwards from Brussels and her Government has fallen apart around her, there’s the simple matter of honesty to consider. It is this above all that makes me back the growing calls for a second referendum.
The original EU referendum campaign was flawed on all sides. Many ordinary people made their voting decision influenced by false promises and hysteria. Most of us knew little about the machinations of Europe and had no time to learn. The campaign was short and did not allow full and frank debate about all of the implications of either leaving or remaining.
There’s also a good argument that the vehemence with which voters, especially in many Northern towns and cities, opted to leave was as much a snap judgement on the then-Prime Minister David Cameron as it was a rational assessment of belonging to a collective which over the years has given billions in funding to help regenerate former coalfields and industrial areas. Mr Cameron is long gone, yet this judgement has been woven into the narrative.
I can see the bigger picture. Theresa May has been charged with doing a job, which is to manage our withdrawal from the EU as effectively as possible. Going to the country again would entirely scupper this process and send us all back to the drawing board. For this reason, she has repeatedly knocked back appeals for a ‘People’s Vote’, despite an estimated half a million people marching on Westminster in favour of a second referendum last month. I have some sympathy for her position; she is the Prime Minister of the country acting on a democratic decision arising from a referendum where more than 70 per cent of the electorate turned out to show their preference. She has repeatedly told the naysayers to let the politicians get on with their job.
However, the difference now is that her obdurate stance has taken the people’s concerns straight to the heart of the political arena. When she presented her draft withdrawal bill to the Cabinet, it prompted multiple resignations, including Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab, plus ministers Suella Braverman, Shailesh Vara and Esther McVey.
In wider political terms, Mrs May’s compromise has united hitherto divided MPs. Although she has the backing now of all 27 member states, the deal she is presenting pleases pretty much no-one in her own Government. Even her backers say that the only thing going for it is that it’s the least unattractive of all the options. For all her manoeuvring, her position is regarded not as a mighty triumph of overcoming opposing forces, but a vulnerable worst of all possible scenarios. She can ignore half a million ordinary people marching past her front door, but when her own party and the House of Commons is seething with resentment, the entire situation ratchets up several gears.
All the evidence suggests that Mrs May is not going to get her deal through the House of Commons on the first vote. There’s talk that there may be a second, even a third vote. Jeremy Corbyn is gearing up to take advantage of the chaos.
Labour’s official position is that it would vote against any deal struck by Theresa May with the aim of pushing for a General Election. Shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer made no bones about this at the annual conference in Liverpool when he spoke of the need to “sweep away this failed government”.
Does she wait and face all this humiliation, with the attendant pressure it will put on her leadership position? Or does she take a step back, assess the situation and conclude that there is nothing to lose by going back to the drawing board and returning the decision to the people once again?
This must be agony for a woman not known to enjoy a gamble. However, the simple truth is that if the deal fails to be agreed by MPs, the democratic process will fail anyway. Why not take hold of this as a crux point, and use it as justification for holding a second referendum?
The simple truth is this. Deal or no deal, hard Brexit or none at all, the whole country is fed up of this agonising situation, stuck between stagnation and blind panic. Some might say it’s unwise to throw the baby out with the bathwater and commit to another public vote. I’d say that the future of the United Kingdom is far too important to be predicated on a string of clichés.