In government circles the notion that the public might be offered a vote on the terms of the Brexit deal has long been taboo; something not to be discussed in front of the children; the great unmentionable.
Credit, therefore, is due to Steve Baker, minister of state at the Department for Exiting the European Union. As we report today, when he found himself before a House of Lords select committee this week he conceded, without any thumbscrews or bright lights, the possibility of a fresh referendum on the terms of our departure from the EU.
Indeed, Mr Baker was helpful enough to suggest that a vote on the deal would need to be held as soon as possible after the conclusion of talks with Brussels in the autumn. That would allow MPs to pass legislation for a referendum before the leaving date of 29 March 2019.
In one sense Mr Baker was merely stating the constitutional fact that parliament is free to debate and pass whatever it chooses. “Parliament can always seek to amend motions,” he said. However, in a government led by someone given to denying the obvious (“nothing has changed”), an acceptance of basic democratic principles feels like a welcome step forward.
Mr Baker’s candour does not alter the prospects of a new referendum, which still depend on two things. One is a decisive shift in public opinion. This would have to be more than the small drift towards Remain recorded by the opinion polls since June 2016, and much more than the 2 per cent swing required to cancel the result of that vote.
In return for Mr Baker’s plain speaking, it is worth The Independent reminding those campaigning to reverse Brexit that they need to do more than simply to repeat at greater volume their arguments from two years ago. Our view is that leaving the EU will be economically damaging, but many people do not believe it or think that it is a price worth paying for the kind of sovereignty they value.
A dramatic shift in opinion is likely, we suspect, only if the EU is prepared to offer new rules governing the free movement of people – rules that David Cameron did not even ask for in his renegotiation because he knew he would not get them.
However, even if British public opinion did swing against Brexit, a second change would be required to make another referendum possible. The Labour Party would have to change its policy. Jeremy Corbyn’s ambivalence about Brexit is well known, but he has allowed shadow ministers to say that the party “has not called” for another referendum, leaving open the possibility that they might still do so.
A shift in public opinion would, therefore, have to be sufficiently great to convince Mr Corbyn that a new referendum was required. The chances of that can only be guessed at.
Let us cautiously welcome Mr Baker’s comments, therefore. He was right to say that parliament could ask for a further referendum if it chose to, and he was right to imply that the decision of the 2016 vote could legitimately be overturned by a further direct decision by the British electorate.
Mr Baker’s openness does not make such a decision any more likely, but at least it allows for a sensible debate.