By ERIC MAURICE
After the Brexiteers rebellion that led to the departure of her Brexit and foreign secretaries, UK prime minister Theresa May is now facing pressure from Remainers for a second referendum before leaving the EU.
As of Tuesday afternoon (31 July), almost 400,000 people had signed Final Say, an online petition launched by The Independent newspaper for a people’s vote “on the real deal – before it’s too late.”
Calls for a new referendum, after the one that took the decision to leave the EU in June 2016, are supported by The Economist weekly and politicians from left and right.
If May “promises a people’s vote, it will strengthen her hand against the Brextremists in her own party,” said Peter Mandelson, a former Labour minister and EU commissioner, on Tuesday.
In a poll published on Monday by Sky TV, 50 percent of respondents said there should be “a referendum asking between the deal the government suggests, no deal or staying in the EU.” 40 percent disagreed.
But the prime minister said, through her spokesperson, that she would not hold a second Brexit referendum “in any circumstances”.
“The Tory party is fundamentally a eurosceptic party, and any Tory leader who would talk about a referendum would be killed [politically], because that would possibly lead to Brexit not happening,” noted Charles Grant, from the Centre for European Reform, a London think tank.
He told EUobserver that the debate was happening now “because there is much more uncertainty on what will happen” at the end of the negotiations with the EU.
“But chances of a vote are extremely small,” he said.
For Anand Menon, from the UK in a Changing Europe think thank, a second vote would solve nothing.
“You don’t get a clear result when a country is divided,” he argued, adding that no one would have an interest in calling a referendum that is too close to call.
In recent weeks, May’s government and the EU have increasingly warned about a ‘no-deal’ scenario – in which the UK would leave the EU on 29 March 2019 without any agreement on how movements of people, goods and money would be managed.
The scenario has led the European Commission to call on EU states and business to step up preparation “immediately at all levels and taking into account all possible outcomes.”
In the UK, the government intends to publish some 70 papers in August or September, with information and advice for business and consumers about the implications of no deal.
In the meantime, British media published alarmist reports saying that the government was planning to stockpile food and medicines to avoid shortages after Brexit, and that the army could be called to organise deliveries.
On Monday, May’s office dismissed the reports and insisted that “there are no plans to involve the army.”
“This is about putting in place sensible preparations in the unlikely event of no deal,” a spokesperson told British media.
“Remainers have to hope there is a crisis” in order to try to reverse Brexit, Grant pointed out.
He said that this was a “high-risk strategy”, because many perceive it as “scaremongering.”
Pressure for a second vote “will come with renewed force after summer,” predicted Menon, because it will be the last chance for ‘Remain’ supporters, before the EU and the UK try to reach a deal and the UK parliament votes to ratify it.
According to the Sky TV poll, 78 percent of Britons think that the government is doing a bad job on Brexit, and 42 percent – against 31 percent – think that Brexit will be bad for them.
Grant insisted however that public opinion’s “shift towards regret [was] very small.”
He noted that Remain led by a few percentage points in recent polls, the trend was similar ahead of the June 2016. And while some Leave voters may turn to Remain, the opposite was also true, especially due to a perception that the EU is “bullying the British”.
Talks between the UK and the EU will resume mid-August, to reach an exit agreement and set the main lines for the future relationship.
“They are very optimistic in the government, probably too optimistic,” Grant said. “May is sticking to her plan.”
With “just enough hints from just enough EU leaders”, he added, the British government can think that its white paper on the future “is not dead yet.”
In the short term, the debate over a referendum will have no impact on May’s stratergy, Menon said.
“For the time being, she has found a kind of sweet spot, preventing a rebellion in favour of a custom union,” he said. And while she is still under pressure for Brexiteers, “they don’t have the numbers to replace her.”
May would then have an interest in finding a late deal, in order to put more pressure on the EU when the October deadline approaches.
“I’m sure they have already penned a special summit in November,” Menon said.