For some time now, The Independent has been campaigning for a ‘Final Say’ for the people on the terms of the Brexit deal. Having covered the first one, and seen up close the truly abysmal spirit in which it was conducted, I have had grave reservations about the wisdom of holding a second one. There are precious few concrete reasons to imagine a new vote would be any more noble a spectacle than the last one.
Indeed, the demons it threatens to unleash could be even more frightening and harder to contain than those that were unleashed two years ago, and which walk among us now.
But, after months of umm-ing and ahh-ing, on Friday morning my mind was made up in something of a seismic personal moment. In a short promotional video for the People’s Vote the football podcast host and former Channel 4 Italian football presenter James Richardson said the following: “In the last two years we have learnt a lot about the realities of Brexiting.
“But in the meantime, while the politicians have been happily changing their minds, changing their promises, changing their positions on what Brexit will actually mean, we’ve been told we’re allowed no further say in the matter, that it would be undemocratic. Really?”
That is a devastating argument. When a politician makes a promise they then break within seconds of victory, there are always consequences. Nick Clegg broke a promise on tuition fees and it broke his party. He will be forever haunted by it, even in the comfort of the California sun and the Facebook dime.
It is boring to have to repeat that in the build-up to the referendum, David Davis claimed that, after Brexit, the UK’s Brexit negotiator would fly first to Berlin to broker a free trade deal with the German car industry. If he did not know then that promise was a joke, he certainly knew a few weeks later, since he himself was the UK’s Brexit negotiator and it so very obviously could never be done.
Liam Fox claimed that dozens of free-trade deals would be ready to sign the second the UK left the European Union. Again, a legal impossibility.
Michael Gove drove around the country in a bus that said: “We send the EU £350m a week. Let’s fund our NHS instead.”
Now, one of the central problems with Brexit is that, for understandable reasons, people perhaps failed to understand that Vote Leave was a campaign group, not a prospective party of government. Its promises were carefully worded. “Let’s spend it on the NHS.” It was an aspiration, a suggestion, not a policy commitment it could never have the power to deliver.
Except for the fact that, within a week of the referendum, Michael Gove, one of Vote Leave’s most senior figures, was standing for leadership of the Conservative Party. In the solitary speech he gave before his campaign was over, he promised “£200m a week for the NHS”. This was one of Vote Leave’s most senior people, who had stood by its promises, now standing for the job of prime minister, a week later, and promising not to deliver on his promises.
In such circumstances, if you had bought Michael Gove on Amazon, you would send him back, having checked the box “goods not as described”. If Michael Gove was a fund manager, making a carefully worded promise a return of £350m on your investment, and then the second you signed the contract, with no material circumstances having changed whatsoever, he promised to deliver £200m instead, Michael Gove would have to work very hard not to go to prison.
Except that, in the special case of a one-off, in/out referendum on the European Union, the most fundamental aspect of democracy, to hold politicians to account for the promises they make, is lost.
Of course, when you put all that to a Brexiter, you get a variation on the same theme in reply. That “people knew what they voted for”, which was to “take back control of our borders, our money and our laws”.
But even that is demonstrably untrue. To take just one unfortunate case, the MP Nadine Dorries wrote on Twitter four days after the referendum that “the Norway model has always been my preference” and shared a link to an article explaining in great detail what the Norway model is. Now, she describes MP colleagues from her own party who holds such views as “traitors”. But that is not even the main point.
Dorries regularly claims that the people voted to take back control of our borders, our money and our laws. Except she did not. The Norway model involves staying in the single market, accepting free movement and making large annual payments into the EU budget. On the day she voted, this was Nadine Dorries’ own preference. When she cast her vote, she demonstrably did not want to take back control of our borders or our money.
Of course, it’s theoretically possible that Dorries didn’t have a clue what she was voting for, that she didn’t understand the questions at hand. Such a theory is made more credible by the fact that on 10 October 2017, she was apparently sending WhatsApp messages asking how the customs union worked.
But it is OK for her. She is an MP. She continues to have a stake in the process, the power to shape outcomes. Yet she refuses that right to the people.
Indeed, Richardson’s point is made all the more powerful by the fact it is not entirely accurate. The people have not been denied any further say in the matter. They were granted a general election in June 2017. They were clearly given a version of Brexit to approve, by Theresa May, and they took her majority away, left her dependent on a small, strange Northern Irish party, and rendered Brexit even more impossible to deliver than ever.
Before the referendum, David Davis, Nigel Farage and others lined up to say that a deal with the European Union would be extremely easy to reach, on the grounds that the German car manufacturers would demand it. And yet two-and-a-half years on, no deal has been reached. And the very people who said how easy it would be are holding Theresa May to ransom, all but refusing she be allowed to extend the Brexit implementation period by a few months, which is the time required to make sure that deal materialises, and it is already far too short.
It should not be controversial to Leavers to point out that nobody voted for the very people who said a deal would be easy to then deny the government the time required to do it. That is the reality we are in. It is a shambles of unprecedented proportions.
Meanwhile, the Labour party rejects calls for a second referendum in favour of a general election, because it wants power more than it cares about Brexit and it is led by Eurosceptics anyway. Almost nothing shifts the polls. There is no reason to imagine a general election would return to the House of Commons a new parliamentary arithmetic capable of resolving the problem.
If it returned a Labour government, there is certainly no reason to imagine Labour would be able to negotiate a satisfactory form of Brexit, not least as their “six tests” can never be passed. One of them is to deliver the “exact same benefits” of membership of the single market. It can’t be done. It was never designed actually to be possible, only to hold David Davis to account for his ridiculous promises.
And to those Remainers who fear the demons that would be unleashed by a second vote, there are two perfectly acceptable answers. One is that fear of the far-right should not shape decisions of this magnitude. If Remain should win, goes the argument, the reaction to it might just come in a form that is “less cuddly” than Nigel Farage.
Certainly there are less cuddly politicians than Nigel Farage sitting in elected parliaments all around Europe. But would they really be elected to ours? Ukip has won millions of votes but has only ever convinced two constituencies to back them, and for a time span best counted in months. Would a more extreme version of Ukip do better, even in more divisive times? I might be wrong, but I doubt it.
The second answer is that there is a perfectly acceptable, indeed noble, option open to you, which is to vote Leave.
If a second referendum were to happen, I have no idea who would win. If you made me bet my own money, I would bet on Leave – and I bet on Leave last time. On a personal note, I know more Remain voters from 2016 who would vote Leave the second time round than vice versa. There would also be a much clearer picture of what Leave voters were actually voting for. It would send a clear instruction to government. Remainers would have to accept it.
But what cannot be denied is that nobody voted Leave on 23 June 2016 in order for its implementation to be entrusted to a minority government in all-out war with itself. It’s too important. They have had their chance and they have failed more spectacularly than it is possible to imagine.
With great reluctance, the only way out of the mess is via the people. It’s possible they might just take that grave responsibility seriously. Certainly they could not treat it with with any greater contempt than the Conservative Party.