The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A second Brexit referendum was once a pipe dream. Now some wonder if it’s the only way out of the chaos.

Several members of Parliament asked British Prime Minister Theresa May Dec. 10 to let Britons vote on a second Brexit referendum or on the deal with Europe. (Video: Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)

LONDON — Not long ago, staging a second Brexit referendum was a fringe idea — a pipe dream of a handful of “remoaners” who had voted to remain in the European Union, cheered on by unpopular figures from yesteryear, such as former prime minister Tony Blair.

But the once barely imaginable is now becoming remotely possible.

The British may be headed toward one of history’s greatest do-overs — another vote to ask do they really, really want to leave the E.U. After all, they now know breaking up is a hard thing to do.

For crazy, chaotic Brexit, nothing would be more crazy and chaotic than another vote.

Prime Minister Theresa May has repeatedly ruled out a second referendum, arguing that the people already voted, in June 2016, when Brexit won by 52 percent to 48 percent. Now, she says, the job is to deliver on that result.

Her cabinet is also against a second plebiscite, and the leader of the opposition Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, isn’t a big fan, either.

But after two years of bickering, confusion and uncivil war over what Brexit should look like, and as it has become clear that the version approved by the E.U. and May’s cabinet has little chance of passing Parliament, more and more Brits are wondering whether a second “people’s vote” might be the only thing to break the impasse. 

“I didn’t think it very likely, but now I’m beginning to wonder if it’s the only exit out of a burning building,” said Tim Bale, a professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London.

A year ago, London bookmaker William Hill was offering 12 to 1 odds for a second referendum. Today, it’s 1 to 1. 

Opinion: Brexit is hard. Staying in the E.U. would be worse.

Adding to the chaos, no one knows which way a new vote would go.

For a long while after the 2016 referendum, public opinion on Brexit didn’t change much. Many Brits doubled down on whatever position they’d taken and began to define themselves as “leavers” or “remainers.” But as the trade-offs of their decision have become more apparent, there’s been a slight shift. Many polls show that, if the choice today were between leaving or remaining, a small majority of Britons would vote to stay in the E.U.

But those inclinations have not been tested by a hard-fought, second campaign.

Some of May’s allies see a potential second referendum as a chance to secure a mandate for her Brexit deal, to give it the endorsement that Parliament appears unlikely to grant.

Nick Timothy, a former top aide to May, wrote in the Daily Telegraph this past week that with her deal “dead as a dodo” in Parliament, the only viable options are a super “soft Brexit,” where Britain pursues for a trade deal with the E.U. like the one Norway has (which isn’t that popular, to be honest) or a second referendum. 

Is May in such a jam that she might go back to the public? 

She is famously stubborn, but she is also pragmatic and has tried mightily to stay relevant — and employed. She knows her current deal is very unpopular. If it loses in the House of Commons, she just might pivot and support a second people’s vote.

“It would not surprise me at all if the prime minister were to say, ‘My deal has been defeated, you know what, I still think it’s the right deal for the country and I’m going to put it to the country in a referendum,’ and then off we go,” Hilary Benn, a Labour lawmaker, remainer and chair of the Brexit select committee, told the BBC. 

The organized push for a second referendum has been coming from Europhiles in London and the university towns, economists, a couple of peers in the House of Lords, journalists who believe the first vote was rigged, and others who think leaving one of the world’s largest and richest trading blocs is a dumb idea.

The Labour Party’s activists love the idea of a do-over. At the party’s convention in September, delegates voted overwhelmingly to support a second referendum, despite the lack of enthusiasm from most of the party leadership.

In October, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets of London to demand a people’s vote on any Brexit deal. Organizers called it the second largest protest here in the 21st century, after the massive demonstration against the Iraq War in 2003.

Pro-Europeans were thrilled last month when the Conservative lawmaker and remainer Jo Johnson — the younger brother of Brexiteer Boris Johnson — quit May’s cabinet and threw his weight behind a people’s vote.

“Given that the reality of Brexit has turned out to be so far from what was once promised, the democratic thing to do is to give the public the final say,” Jo Johnson wrote in his resignation letter.

The movement got a further boost this past week when the European Court of Justice ruled that Britain could unilaterally reverse itself and stay in the E.U.

Theresa May survives no confidence vote, but Brexit deal still shaky

The path to a second referendum wouldn’t be easy, though.

There isn’t a majority in Parliament calling for a do-over. One analysis calculated that only 133 lawmakers — out of 650 — have publicly backed a second referendum.

Paul Butters, a spokesman for the pro-referendum activist group Best for Britain, said he’s seeing an uptick in members of Parliament mulling over the idea. “MPs we haven’t lobbied are coming up, saying, ‘my constituents are making the case to me’ — you’re starting to see a lot of that,” he said.

Campaigners hope the number would go up even more if May’s deal is voted down in Parliament.

But even if enough lawmakers were to support a second referendum, implementation would take time. The Constitution Unit research group at University College London estimates it could take about five months to pull it off. 

Britain doesn’t have five months. It’s set to leave the E.U. in three. So it would need to negotiate an extension of the Brexit deadline with Brussels.

There is also the fraught issue of what would be on the ballot. Would it be a binary choice — a yes or a no? If so, what would those choices be? May’s Brexit deal vs. a no-deal Brexit? Or May’s deal vs. remain in the E. U.? Those questions would produce radically different results. 

Perhaps there could be multiple options? Preferential voting?

All of this would be highly contentious.

Boris Johnson, who resigned as May’s foreign secretary because of his frustration with her approach to Brexit, acknowledged this past week that “growing numbers” of lawmakers want a second vote, but he argued against it.

“Leaving aside the likely outcome of such a second poll (and I see no reason why Leave should not win again), it would be infamous and pathetic of MPs to go back to the people before the political class had even succeeded in delivering on the first referendum result,” he wrote in the Daily Telegraph

“It would so shake trust in politicians that the Government would suffer massively, and deservedly, in the next general election,” Johnson argued.

Many opponents of a second referendum say it would not only be divisive but also undemocratic. They say the establishment can’t hold votes until it gets the answers that it wants.

Others say a referendum is inherently democratic.

“May’s suggestion that a #PeoplesVote would ‘overturn the will of the British people’ makes literally no sense,” tweeted J.K. Rowling, the Harry Potter creator and remainer. “Who does she think would be voting? The Chinese?” 

Caroline Lucas, a Green Party lawmaker, told The Washington Post: “I think it’s right that people have the opportunity to have a first say on the actual facts of the deal. Two years ago, people didn’t have any information, really, about what kind of Brexit we would be talking about, and now we know that every single version of Brexit that is being offered are versions that will make the whole country poorer.”

“I’m very conflicted” on a second referendum, said Caroline Cheales, 57, who was waving an E.U. flag outside the wrought iron gates of Westminister on Wednesday, waiting to see if May had survived a no-confidence vote triggered by those unhappy with her Brexit proposal.

“I’d love it if it was rerun and we ended up remaining, because I think this is a catastrophic change of direction,” Cheales said. But she also fretted it could sow even greater division. “Just rerunning it isn’t necessarily going to be the answer,” she said.

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Could Brexit bring new troubles to Northern Ireland?

Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

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