Ian Swanson: Second Brexit referendum would divide UK but is worth risk

Overturning Brexit in second referendum might create sense of betrayal among Leave voters, writes Ian Swanson.
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AS fears mount over a “no deal” Brexit and the need to stockpile food before the UK cuts its ties with the world’s biggest trading bloc, public opinion appears to have shifted.

A new poll shows a majority of people across the UK would now vote to stay in the EU. From the 2016 referendum result of 52 per cent to 48 per cent in favour of Leave, the balance has now shifted to 53-47 for Remain.

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More than 100 constituencies across the UK which backed Brexit two years ago now have a majority who want to stay in. The seats held by leading Brexiteers Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Jacob Rees-Mogg are among those which have switched to support Remain.

Demonstrators march to call for "a People's Vote" on the final Brexit deal (Picture: Niklas Halle'n/AFP/Getty)Demonstrators march to call for "a People's Vote" on the final Brexit deal (Picture: Niklas Halle'n/AFP/Getty)
Demonstrators march to call for "a People's Vote" on the final Brexit deal (Picture: Niklas Halle'n/AFP/Getty)

And in Scotland, where the referendum vote was already 62-38 for Remain, support for staying in the EU has strengthened to 64.5 per cent. In 51 out of the 59 constituencies, opinion is even more in favour of Remain than it was two years ago. Perhaps surprisingly, Edinburgh South West was one of the eight seats where opinion was found to have shifted towards Brexit, though not enough to produce a majority. In 2016, Edinburgh voted 74-26 for Remain.

With the Brexit negotiations having reached an apparent impasse – neither the EU nor many in her own party are willing to accept Theresa May’s Chequers proposals – Lib Dem leader Sir Vince Cable has described the poll findings as “yet more compelling evidence the British people must be given the final say”.

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Over 100 constituencies that backed Brexit would now vote Remain

Former Tory cabinet minister Justine Greening came out last month in favour of a new referendum, proposing voters should choose from three options – the Prime Minister’s plan, no deal or staying in the EU. Even some Cabinet ministers are said privately to back such a move as the only way to break the deadlock.

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And the poll will pile pressure on both Labour and the SNP to declare they would now support a second referendum. In simple terms, the case for a fresh vote is strong. It would not be a rerun of the 2016 referendum, but a case of asking voters for their verdict on whatever deal might have been negotiated with the alternative of continuing our EU membership. But from the Remainers’ point of view there are two problems. One is that despite the polls there is no guarantee a new referendum will produce a different overall outcome. Brexit supporters are quick to point out most polls ahead of the 2016 vote showed Remain in the lead, only for Leave to triumph on the night.

And secondly, calling another referendum – especially if there is a different result – is likely to create huge resentment among Leave voters, fostering a sense of betrayal and fuelling claims about an establishment that refuses to accept defeat and tells people to keep voting until they get the right answer.

Withdrawing from the EU is a massive step which will affect everyone’s future, with potentially devastating consequences – and it may therefore be necessary to take the risk of a second ballot. But no-one should see a second referendum as an easy solution. It carries with it real dangers of increasing disaffection among an already alienated section of the population and confirming them in their view that their opinions and interests are ignored.

Whatever happens, Brexit is certain to continue causing division for the foreseeable future.