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Second thoughts on Brexit

02 February 2018

THE subject of a second Brexit referendum refuses to go away. It probably never will, even after the UK has left the European Union and is beckoning to a few last, reluctant migrants to help it out of its economic malaise. The prospect was discussed again in the House of Lords on Tuesday, as peers sought to reconcile their various conceptions of an ongoing relationship with the EU with the contents of the European Union Withdrawal Bill. Lord Adonis, in particular, was adamant: “Just as the first say on Brexit was given to the people, so the final say should rest with the people, once they see the terms proposed by the Government.” Another peer, Lord Lisvane, was more colourful, conjuring up “three elderly and extremely nervous aunts” who decide that they want to go to the cinema. But the only films on offer are Reservoir Dogs and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. “Am I then to say to my . . . aunts: ‘You must stick with your democratic decision.’ Or do I say: ‘Now you know what’s on offer, what do you think?”

The phrase “Two wrongs don’t make a right” comes to mind; but one point is well made: the 2015 referendum did not give the Government any guidance about the sort of exit from the EU that the electorate wanted, nor what Lord Mandelson on Tuesday called a blank cheque.

In March last year, eight bishops, including the two arch­bishops, helped to vote down an amendment that called for a second referendum. (Two bishops voted for it.) During the debate, the Archbishop of Canterbury spoke of the intricacy of the negotiations ahead. It would be a mistake, he said, to attempt to reduce that complexity to a binary yes/no argument. But the very same binary yes/no vote at the end of the Brexit process is the only concession that Parliament has wrested for itself from a reluctant Government. By that stage, there will be no opportunity to amend any of the legislation. It was thus a Pyrrhic victory: few MPs are bold enough to vote against “the will of the people”. Matters would be greatly improved were our parliamentarians able to influence the negotiations with Brussels in real time. But, nursing its slender, conditional majority, the Government prefers to keep everyone in the dark about what is going on — or, as seems to be indicated, not going on.

The Bishop of Leeds’s call for moderation in the discourse is timely. Judging by the violence of the reaction to anything that appears to be a concession to Brussels — even when it is merely the continuation of an existing agreement — the hard Brexiteers want no relationship with Europe at all. Even economic forecasts prepared by Whitehall are being dismissed out of hand, suggest­ing that, even were it to be shown that the UK would be worse off outside the EU, it would not change their minds. A second vote would at least discover whether the electorate were this immovable.

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