Dr Phillip Lee | Brexit without a People’s Vote will be truly undemocratic
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Brexit without a People’s Vote will be truly undemocratic

It’s time for the country to “come together”. We need a Brexit deal that commands “broad support”. Remainers, even though every poll now indicates they’re in a majority, must accept the “will of the people” and devote all their energies to helping shape the UK’s post-Brexit future. We hear a lot of this sort of thing being said by the architects of Brexit as the clock ticks inexorably towards our EU departure, which is supposed to be taking place on March 29.

Even EU Council President Donald Tusk, while reserving a special place in hell for those who advocated Brexit with no plan for how it could be done, suggests that the positions of the two main party leaders means there is no prospect of the UK reversing its decision and staying in. All this presents new challenges for those of us who have taken a stand and called for a final-say referendum to determine whether people really do want to leave, now the exit terms at least are clearer, or remain.

When I became the first minister to resign from the Government to campaign for such a vote on the Conservative backbenches, it was a fairly lonely place. Since then I’ve been joined by excellent colleagues such as Sam Gyimah, Guto Bebb and Jo Johnson. It pains me to say that my party has managed to alienate an entire swathe of the electorate, particularly young professionals, by pandering only to the interests of the 52 per cent who voted to leave.

Labour appears to be losing members and voters, who have finally seen through its absurd attempt at “constructive ambiguity” over Brexit and realised that Jeremy Corbyn has every intention of facilitating the UK’s departure. Fairly or unfairly, the Liberal Democrat brand, meanwhile, is bust by coalition.

The truth is, the only movement in British politics with any real momentum is the one for a final-say referendum. In virtually every Conservative seat in the UK, a majority of voters now support a new referendum given the deadlock in Parliament.

Those who oppose us know this, so they seek to use the fast-approaching Article 50 deadline as an opportunity to declare the People’s Vote campaign done and dusted.

There’s no immediate prospect of a Parliamentary majority for a final-say referendum, so we’re told we should give up the fight. Unless we now roll over and back an exit deal that we know will do serious damage to our international standing and our economy, we’re warned we risk facilitating something even worse — a no-deal Brexit.

There’s all to play for afterwards, these siren voices say — given that trade talks with the EU haven’t even started and the “political declaration” alongside the exit deal is essentially meaningless, with no legal force, we should all accept the question of UK membership of the EU is settled and turn our attention to campaigning for a close relationship from outside.

Let me make one thing absolutely clear. I don’t blame people for voting to leave, given what they were told in 2016, and if they chose to go ahead in full possession of the facts, then I would accept it. I’m a democrat. But I’m afraid I’ve got some news for those who think we’ll all ultimately fall in behind some version of Brexit without any fresh mandate from the public.

I don’t think that would be democratic, and however long it takes, even if Britain does leave, this fight will go on. That is because we know our arguments are sound. The truth is, there is only one way to know whether the Prime Minister’s deal has “broad support” and that is to ask people to vote on it.

This is the only possible means of reuniting our country behind an agreed way forward, given that none of the options remotely matches the mendacious promises that were made in 2016. The understandable desire among voters for Brexit to be settled one way or another, so the country can focus on other things, will turn to incomprehension and fury when people realise that exit is just the start of another five to 10 years of pointless negotiation in which the EU has the upper hand.

So, whatever happens next, those of us on my side of the argument will not give up. To those who are agitating for their version of Brexit to proceed without the validation of a final-say referendum, we warn that the consequence will be the issue being contested for a generation. We won’t stop — after all, we have learned from the best, the Brexiteers themselves, who have pursued their ends ruthlessly and relentlessly for decades.

Fighting this fight may mean new political alliances and structures. If the Brexiteers do succeed in taking Britain out of the EU without the informed consent of the British people, I make this prediction: the UK will eventually re-enter the EU. In doing so, it will have to agree to join the euro and the Schengen area too — the worst nightmare of Eurosceptics. Much better to keep fighting to give the people the right to vote for what really is the best deal for Britain: the one we already have.


This article was first published in the London Evening Standard on 15h February 2019.

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