While everyone is cooing over Nigel Farage's Brexit U-turn, remember he would benefit from whatever the outcome of a second referendum

Denis MacShane
The former Ukip leader’s latest stunt should be seen for what it is – a further example of his ability to make headlines: Reuters

Like a snake charmer, Nigel Farage enjoys getting the entire political media elite rising to his tunes. He has done it again with his suggestion that a second referendum may be needed. Of course he was being disingenuous, and one does not need to be a student of Virgil to beware Greeks bearing gifts.

But it did indeed work like a charm. Nick Clegg trilled as he tweeted, “I agree with Nigel,” as did his successor, Sir Vince Cable. All the Lords who oppose Brexit came out trembling with pleasure that they had found their champion for a second referendum. George Osborne even turned the Evening Standard front page into an endorsement for Nigel.

And the old snake-oil salesman didn’t even have to appear on his normal reserved slot on Question Time to get his allotted deluge of publicity. By the evening, of course, he had reverse ferreted with a Daily Telegraph article.

He explained that he did not really mean he wanted a referendum to reverse Brexit but my, how he flushed out all those who think a new referendum before May 2019 can be held and Brexit put into cold storage.

If only it were that simple. Farage has positioned himself well. He latched on to the demand for a referendum early on in his rise to fame. After 1997 William Hague, the Tory leader, insisted that referendums should be held on the Amsterdam Treaty of 1998 – anyone remember what was in it? – and then the Nice Treaty that followed.

Farage took Hague’s call to its logical conclusion and called for a vote on EU membership itself. This was conceded by David Cameron as he moved the Tories closer and closer to Ukip.

In a sense, Farage cannot lose. If a second referendum is held and the UK stays in the EU, Ukip and Farage himself will do handsomely in the European Parliament elections. He will also be able to keep his rather large salary as an MEP, the most generous and unaccountable expenses in democracy, with offices and sofas and staff attending to his every need.

Plus he stays in business on Today and LBC and Question Time peddling his lines about immigrants and Brussels and how the establishment thwarted the people’s will.

If a new referendum confirms our departure from the EU, which on today’s opinion polls is likely, Farage wins as he would have campaigned for Brexit Mark 2, with mainstream parties divided. Even in the happier era for the EU of the early 1990s, the Norwegians were asked to revote an initial referendum decision to reject EU membership and simply reconfirmed their initial vote.

Farage also knows that Brexit has not yet happened. When it does and the impact is fully felt in two or three years’ time, the Tories will be twisting in the wind of a major economic downturn with every chance Jeremy Corbyn, who could offer a new referendum as an election pledge, taking over in Downing Street.

And if they did manage to seize power, a Corbyn government would have no idea of how to handle Brexit, so Farage would re-emerge as the “I told you so” man of the moment.

Brexit is the Ebola virus of British politics, sucking all the life out of the body politic.

There have been facile comparisons with reversed referendums in Ireland, Denmark and the Netherlands. All those were rejections of a new Treaty, not of EU membership, and were handled with special protocols or opt-outs.

Brexit is an entirely different referendum and reversing it requires a much bigger change in public opinion and a much better campaign than the odd op-ed in elite papers in London…

Farage’s latest stunt should be seen for what it is – a further example of his ability to make headlines. It does not change the core problem for the anti-Brexit camp – how to persuade the 52 per cent and how to squeeze some leadership out of the dried Labour lemon, which hopes Brexit will damage only Theresa May and no one else.

Denis MacShane is the former Europe Minister and author of Brexit, No Exit. Why (in the End) Britain Won’t Leave Europe (IB Tauris) He will be debating Brexit with Sir Julian Brazier at Waterstones Canterbury next Tuesday at 6.30pm