It may seem odd that a cabal of politicians, celebrities and millionaires can successfully present themselves as a great democratic force and seek to overturn Brexit, Britain’s vote to leave the European Union. But the people behind the People’s Vote have one big advantage: their opponents are in disarray.
Vote Leave ceased campaigning after the referendum. Its organisers felt they had accomplished their mission, and the Conservative government could be trusted to execute Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union. Boris Johnson now describes that decision as an ‘absolutely fatal’ mistake.
As foreign secretary, Johnson admitted to dinner guests earlier this summer that ‘some of us were seduced by high office in government’. He and other key Brexiteers, such as David Davis and Michael Gove, took cabinet positions in a government that was, at best, uncertain about Brexit. The task of campaigning for Brexit thus fell to the European Research Group — made up of Eurosceptic backbenchers — which soon turned into the Jacob Rees-Mogg show. This group’s big aim was to influence the government position but for all Mogg’s merits, what the Brexit cause needed was a campaign group that could reach across the party’s middle. Without Vote Leave, no such thing existed.
The Remain campaign, by contrast, never stopped. In the past two years they have seized the initiative, while Johnson, Davis and others were busy grappling with government. Crucial time was lost.
That at least is how many of the Vote Leave staff — many of whom have spent time in Whitehall recently — feel. They complain about the lack of a ‘pro-Brexit narrative’, while No. 10 has often approached Britain’s withdrawal from the EU as a damage limitation exercise.
The official Remain campaign, Britain Stronger in Europe, morphed into Open Britain. This year that group formed the People’s Vote, to campaign directly for another referendum on the final deal. They’ve kept getting stronger, richer, more optimistic. And they have found a clear message: the facts have changed, we now know what Brexit looks like, so it’s only right the public has another say.
The Remainers at the top tend to be millionaire businessmen and entrepreneurs, with a few seasoned politicians. They all have one thing in common: an unrivalled enthusiasm for the cause of a second referendum. Such clarity or energy cannot be found on the Leave side, where Brexiteers bicker over the pros and cons of no deal compared to a temporary stay in the EEA.
There are regular meetings of the chief Remainers — a list that includes Peter Mandelson, Gina Miller and the pollster Peter Kellner — at Europe House. The thinking is they should target swing voters once the final deal has emerged. And while a second referendum is unlikely, who would be bold enough to say that it’s impossible?
It’s not just hard to see how Theresa May would get her Chequers deal through Parliament; with the Conservative party so divided on the issue it’s hard to see how she would get parliamentary approval for any Brexit deal. That could in theory put the power in the hands of those People’s Vote MPs who say they will back her plan — so long as the government puts it to the public in a second referendum. ‘I’d say we have a 30 per cent chance right now,’ says a figure involved with the planning.
Polling so far suggests that there has been no great shift in public opinion. The polls that do give Remain a lead in a theoretical second vote tend to rely on population changes — older Brexit voters dying, pro-EU teens becoming eligible to vote. If there were a second referendum, then Vote Leave’s director Dominic Cummings has already declared the campaign would tread a different path – one that might not leave the Tories intact. If Leave wins again, he says, ‘the logical corollary will be [for Vote Leave] to morph into a new party and fight the next election to implement the promises we made in the referendum because the MPs have proved they can’t be trusted’.
The Brexiteers put their faith in the Tories the last time. They would not make the same mistake twice.
This article was originally published in The Spectator magazine.