Making political predictions is a fraught business, but a question repeatedly put to me over the festive break by family and friends was, ‘What’s going to happen next with Brexit?’
As we enter 2018 it’s clear that this could well be the UK’s last full year of membership of the European Union. My reading of the public mood both here in the North East and across the country is that there has been no significant shift in the 52% - 48% vote that originally won the referendum for the Leave campaign. What is discernible, but not to be confused with a shift of support to Remain, is that many Remainers are better informed than they were 18 months ago and are making an increasingly noisy and noticeable case for some form of second referendum.
Whichever side of the debate you are on there is agreement that Brexit is a momentous decision. At this point, and admittedly to some degree, it depends on how you pose the question, a majority view emerges in support of the country asking itself, ‘Are we sure we want to do this?’ Remember, 28% of the electorate didn’t vote in the original Brexit referendum and many of them support the idea of a, ‘Are we sure we want to leave?’ vote.
This is the key debate that will play itself out as we travel through the first nine months of 2018, with the main question being: can this majority in the country at large organise itself in such a way that a majority of MPs at Westminster can be persuaded of the case for a, ‘Are we sure?’ vote?
Of the various permutations of what a further vote would actually have written on the ballot paper the one that emerges as the most meaningful is one that juxtaposes ‘leaving on the terms achieved by our government’ versus ‘remaining in the EU’.
A majority of members of the House of Lords would support such a referendum, but MPs would be much more conflicted, particularly pro Remain Labour MPs whose constituencies voted Leave – of which we had many in the North East.
A string of opinion polls that showed a clear majority in English regions that voted leave supporting such a referendum could be persuasive for these MPs. In addition, if a trend emerged that support for Labour would increase significantly should the party back a second referendum then it may persuade MPs and the Labour leadership team to vocally back this option. At the moment the polls are showing that there wouldn’t be an overall majority for Labour in the House of Commons so perhaps backing another referendum might be the policy position that pushes them over the finish line.
Of course, we know that we have to treat the polls a little sceptically these days, but Brexit is an issue which potentially transcends party politics so could it persuade Liberal Democrat and Conservative voters to vote Labour in the privacy of the polling booth?
The hard-nosed political reality is that the group best placed to deliver a referendum on the final deal are, of course, the government, specifically the Prime Minister and the Cabinet.
By the autumn the exit terms will have been thrashed out between the UK and the EU27, with the Prime Minister the ultimate arbitrator of the UK’s position – not Boris Johnson or David Davis. With the clock ticking down these terms will need to be signed off by individual votes in all the national parliaments of the 27 member states as well as in the EU Parliament before the UK can be offered the deal.
This would then pave the way for Theresa May to inform the country that this is the best deal her government has been able to negotiate and that it is now for the people of the UK, Northern Ireland and Gibraltar to vote in a final referendum to accept the deal and leave the EU or decline it and remain.
So, what’s going to happen next with Brexit? With things moving as fast as they did in 2017 who knows? What we do know is it won’t be over until the final whistle blows.
First published in The Journal newspaper on Wednesday 3rd January 2018.