The divided Brexiteers are on the brink of throwing away their one chance to leave the EU
An opinion poll this week confirmed that the Leave movement is broken in two
I wonder if the Leavers have blown it. Boris Johnson has already said that staying in the EU would be preferable to Theresa May’s deal. At the time I thought it was an interesting paradox – now I think it could be an account of what will happen.
A YouGov poll this week confirmed that the Leave movement is now broken in two. The poll was carried out before Christmas, on 18-19 December, and found that the prime minister’s deal is unpopular.
That much we knew. But what is important is the effect on questions about a possible referendum. A new referendum is supported by 41 per cent of adults in Great Britain, and opposed by 38 per cent (the rest, 23 per cent, don’t know). And in any referendum that has remaining in the EU as an option, it is the option that would win. Even in a three-option referendum, more people say they would vote Remain (42 per cent) than for the two Leave choices, deal and no deal, put together (38 per cent).
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What is more, YouGov is now consistently recording a big gap between those who say Britain was wrong to vote to leave in the last referendum (47 per cent) and those who say it was right (40 per cent). The Leave camp is divided and demoralised.
That could change in an actual referendum campaign, of course. Michael Gove, the environment secretary, may be right to say, in his interview today, “Leave would win by an even bigger majority.” But the problem for Leavers is that there are now two kinds of Leave, and the advocates of each are at loggerheads.
Much of Gove’s interview is devoted to the potentially “disastrous” consequences of leaving the EU without an agreement. He is now at odds with majority opinion in the Conservative Party. That YouGov poll is part of an ESRC research project run by Tim Bale at Queen Mary University of London, and includes separate polls of Tory and Labour party members. The poll of Tory members finds they would rather leave the EU without a deal and, if that option isn’t on the ballot paper in a referendum, 20 per cent of them feel strongly enough to say they wouldn’t vote.
Put those findings together and it seems that the case for a referendum has changed. For Remainer MPs, the incentives to back it are growing. Public opinion is now weakly in favour of it, and it looks eminently winnable for Remain – the gulf between dealers and no-dealers is so wide that it is hard to see them making common cause, without which there is little chance of a majority for either form of Leave. Even a two-stage referendum, first asking voters to choose again between Remain and Leave and then, if Leave, between deal and no deal, would be difficult for a divided Leave campaign to win.
In YouGov’s hypothetical referendums, the only one in which Leave wins is when people are simply offered a choice between leaving with a deal and without. As if to emphasise how divided the Leave movement has become, that question produces a tie on 31 per cent each (with many Remainers saying they would refuse to vote).
This increases the pressure on Jeremy Corbyn to declare in favour of a new referendum. YouGov’s poll of Labour members confirms that 72 per cent of them support it. I don’t know if Corbyn will yield to that pressure, and, even if he did, the supporters of a referendum may still be short of a majority in the Commons.
But it could be close, and the no-dealers in parliament are making it closer.
Tory MPs who complain that the deal means vassalage will have had their convictions strengthened by taking soundings of their local associations over the Christmas recess, if the poll of party members is any guide. Meanwhile, the calculations of leadership contenders (that is, about half the cabinet) will be tilted against May’s deal by the knowledge of the views of party members, who have the final vote on her successor.
The balance of forces in parliament is unstable. The no-dealers are the one group who definitely cannot muster a majority, so a no-deal Brexit is likely to be avoided by MPs voting either for the prime minister’s deal or to postpone exit day and hold a referendum.
If the prime minister cannot win the vote on her deal, then I think she would rather hold a referendum than lead the nation into a no-deal Brexit. And if there were a vote in favour of a referendum in the Commons, I don’t think she could ignore it, even though it wouldn’t be binding.
It is extraordinary, but it seems quite possible that Brexit could be averted late in the day by the disorganisation and division of the Brexiteers, and their refusal to accept the only kind of Brexit that ever stood a chance of being approved by the House of Commons.
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