The case for a second EU referendum

Nigel Farage was right—the tight result last year means there is “unfinished business”

May 24, 2017
©Daniel Leal-Olivas/PA Wire/PA Images
©Daniel Leal-Olivas/PA Wire/PA Images

“In a 52–48 referendum this would be unfinished business by a long way.” Not my words, but those of Nigel Farage in the run-up to the vote last June.

I rarely agree with Nigel, but on that occasion he was right. The British people voted to leave the European Union on 23rd June last year, and I respect that result. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t big and important debates to be had about the future of our country. It is, indeed, unfinished business.

Theresa May doesn’t want to have those debates. She’s asking the British people to give her a landslide majority so that she can impose her version of hard Brexit, but refuses to spell out precisely what that entails. She’s even made the ludicrous claim that she has the “support of 65 million people willing us to make it happen.”

She doesn’t—and that’s why Britain needs a second referendum, this time on the final Brexit deal that the prime minister returns with in two years’ time.

Setting aside the PM’s questionable assumptions about the political views of 4 million children under five, polls show that most voters are far from signed up to Theresa May’s cause. A YouGov poll last week found that the public think Britain was wrong to vote to leave the EU, by 45 per cent to 44 per cent.

Of course, poll results like that aren’t decisive, but they certainly give the lie to May’s claim that the whole nation is squarely behind her. And why hasn’t everyone fallen into line?

Maybe it’s because the PM has chosen a particularly extreme and destructive form of Brexit—not only leaving the EU, but taking us out of the single market and the customs union too. That’s despite Nigel Farage himself telling us for years that, after Brexit, Britain would be like Norway and Sweden—both of which are out of the EU but in the single market. By a margin of 2-to-1, voters oppose May’s approach of ruling out membership of the single market. And when it comes to the customs union, an even bigger majority want us to stay in.

Maybe it’s because the impact of Brexit on family budgets is becoming clearer. The pound has lost 13 per cent of its value against the dollar since the referendum, and inflation has soared to its highest rate in five years. Official figures this week revealed that, having finally begun to recover from the recession, real wages have started falling again. The Centre for Economics and Business Research estimates that the average household will be £500 worse off this year than it was last year. Little wonder, then, that 40 per cent of people thinkBrexit will leave us worse off economically, compared to just 25 per cent who say we’ll be better off.

Maybe it’s because, despite what it said on the side of Boris Johnson’s big red bus, there has been no extra £350m a week for the NHS. On the contrary, the Chancellor admitted that Brexit has already blown a £59bn black hole in the public finances. The NHS is in crisis—with thousands of patients left waiting on trolleys and thousands more having operations cancelled at the last minute—and Brexit will mean less money to save it, not more.

But fundamentally, it comes down to this: no one knows exactly what Brexit will look like. The choices May makes in these negotiations will affect the lives of every person in the country for decades to come. Yet she wants to simply impose her deal on the country—with no chance for the people to have their say. There will not even be a meaningful vote in parliament, where MPs could vote for Britain to Remain if May’s Brexit deal isn’t up to scratch. 

This is simply wrong. The Liberal Democrats believe that the British people should have the final say on the deal, not Theresa May. If the deal is backed by a majority in another referendum, then that should be accepted. But if the British public decides that it’s a bad deal, it shouldn’t just have to accept it. It should have the chance to reject it—and to remain in the EU.