It was dinner table chat a few months ago, now the possibility of a second vote on whether to leave the EU is being openly discussed in the media.
The man who has made Brexit his life’s work, Nigel Farage, has even acknowledged it may be necessary to hold a second vote.
Recent polls have suggested a majority across the UK would like to have a say on whatever deal is negotiated between London and the other twenty seven EU capitals – with the choice being accept the agreed deal or stay in.
Opponents of Brexit are beginning to hope it can be stopped and supporters – as Farage’s comments suggest – are beginning to fear it could be.
But is the prospect of a second referendum really on the table?
There are formidable obstacles that need to be overcome if British voters are to get a say on the final deal.
The courage of politicians is one. Another vote requires the Labour Party to step up to the role of Her Majesty’s Opposition and back it. As things stand, with Jeremy Corbyn still effectively supporting Brexit, this still looks a remote possibility despite those recent polls showing growing support among Labour voters.
If Labour were to come out for a second referendum, they would be joining the Lib Dems and Greens who have already called for one. The Scottish National Party would likely join this alliance and potentially – and crucially – some Tory Remainers, who would be needed to overcome the Democratic Unionist votes propping up Theresa May’s government.
Such an outcome would almost certainly face accusations of treachery from the Brexit supporting right wing papers, which may well deter potential Tory rebels – and may well deter Labour too. Although in Keir Starmer Labour has a politician capable of mustering a strong parliamentary campaign for a rethink.
Even though the first referendum wasn’t legally binding, it would be politically impossible to reverse Brexit on basis of a parliamentary vote – it would play into the populist narrative of ‘elite’ politicians ignoring the people’s will.
But that argument and the onslaught of the right wing press could be blunted by the fact that it is the ‘British People’ who would be the ones making the final decision – not politicians or judges.
A second obstacle, which may be insurmountable, is old father time.
Come the morning of 30 March next year, Britain will legally no longer be a member of the EU, whether or not a transition period is agreed, and it is very possible the deal will not have been finalised by then.
So the UK would face the prospect of holding a referendum on that deal after it was no longer a member of the EU.
If the result were a majority to remain in the EU, would London have to apply to rejoin?
This is terra incognita legally and constitutionally, but then, so is the whole Brexit process currently underway. Also, if a transition period is agreed, de facto the UK would still be abiding by all EU law and regulations, so if the other 27 were willing, what would stop a rapid decision that nothing had really changed, so the UK could rejoin without going through the lengthy application process?
Where’s there’s a will, there’s a way – particularly in the EU with its proclivity for fudge.
The final potential fly in the ointment though would be the attitude of the other 27 if the British were to change their minds and say “actually we’d rather stay in after all’,
Would they just say fine, no problem?
After all the disruption and work caused by Brexit so far, the rest might decide the UK should pay a price to stay – such as an end to opt outs (aka special treatment in many other countries) or even the annual rebate.
In this case, opinion in Britain could shift again, egged on by the Europhobic press and politicians.
Potentially a second referendum campaign could see a much better quality of debate and argument given what we now know of the complexities and the economic downside involved in leaving.
Although given the way the UK media works and given the hard line politicians’ penchant for playing fast and loose with facts and realities, Brexiteers would no doubt portray the EU as bullying and unreasonable and point to the talks so far as evidence.
For their part, Remainers would be well advised to avoid the ‘Project Fear’ nonsense of the last campaign and focus on a positive vision of what the EU stands for, reminding people – particularly older voters who may remember the last World War or its aftermath when Europeans were dying in their millions – there’s more to the EU than trade and immigration.