London/United Kingdom. You’d think Remain would be set to win the British election. The UK is now majority Remain (by about 53-47, taking an average of recent polls), and many Remainers have never felt so passionate about a political cause before. They also tend to be much more politically interested than Leavers, according to polling for the Hansard Society.
Yet heading into what may be the final showdown over Brexit, Boris Johnson leads in the polls, the Liberal Democrats’ pledge to revoke Brexit has fallen flat and many Remainers are fighting Labour v Liberal Democrat battles. I suspect (see below) that even if a Labour-led coalition formed a government and called a second referendum, Remain would lose it. Like a ghastly marital tiff, Britain’s national row over Brexit now seems to be dwindling to a close out of sheer exhaustion.
Leave has lost most arguments about the supposed sunny uplands to come, but here’s why it will probably win the fight:
1. Jeremy Corbyn. The fates of Remain and the least popular opposition leader on record are now inextricably linked. A second referendum probably only happens if Corbyn becomes prime minister. Many Remainers draw the line there.
2. Though the majority is now Remain, the majority also believes that Brexit should happen. The polling question, “What would you vote in a second referendum?” misses the point, because few voters want a second referendum, argues Matt Bevington of the research group UK in a Changing Europe.
Most believe they shouldn’t get to revise the original decision. Last winter, for instance, four polls by YouGov asked whether a second referendum that produced a vote for Remain would “respect the result of the original referendum”. Each time, majorities of more than 30 percentage points said it wouldn’t. Two polls by Savanta ComRes and one by BMG also found large majorities saying the original vote should be respected.
Most people consider that fair play, says Bevington. He concludes from observing focus groups with low-income Britons: “Regardless of which way they voted, most see themselves as one unit and politicians as another. So, even if they voted Remain, they want politicians to carry out the result because it is still ‘their vote’ as a public.” One man in a focus group in Middlesbrough said that leaving the EU had become a test “to prove that democracy works”.
The reasonable argument that Britons should now be allowed to vote on the actual Brexit deal doesn’t sway most voters. They consider the referendum morally binding, even if legally it was only advisory and suffused with falsehoods. Vote Leave’s tactics in a second referendum would be predictable. It couldn’t lead with the supposed benefits of leaving again.
Few people still believe that Brexit would free up £350m a week for the National Health Service, boost trade or save the UK from the impending collapse of a Turkey-enhanced EU. Only one strong argument for Brexit remains: people voted for it. Leave’s slogan would therefore be something like “Respect the Vote”. Remain would benefit from Corbyn’s decision not to campaign on its behalf, yet would still probably lose.
Many Remainers now prefer Britain to take a hit to its economy by leaving the EU than a hit to its democracy by staying. The fear isn’t mass riots by Leavers: recent pro-Brexit protests have been tiny. Rather, the risk is that about a third of Britons might abandon the democratic process permanently.
And, as Johnson and his adviser Dominic Cummings pointedly told MPs this summer, a few could get violent. 3. The joyless Conservative slogan “Get Brexit done” chimes with how the majority of Britons now sees the issue. Most voters conceive of leaving the EU — which a Conservative government would probably do next month — as the end of the Brexit process.
They’re not very interested in how Brexit unfolds after that. Remainers point out that Brexiting would trigger years of trade talks with most countries on earth. But by then most Britons would have turned off. They would no longer have to expend emotion on Brexit, or spend more of their short lives on earth arguing about the customs union.
Their new-found tribal identities of “Remainder” and “Leaver” could be allowed to fade away like bubblegum tattoos. Yes, Brexit would remain hugely consequential, but the near-absence of climate change from electoral politics this past decade shows that people are good at ignoring hugely consequential issues.
The very dismalness of Brexit encourages voters to turn off. Boredom helped beget Brexit: many people were excited finally to be offered a grand historical cause. Some even relished a bit of anarchy (as long as it didn’t upend their own lives). Now boredom could end the Brexit fight. If the Remain cause looks almost lost, hopes for a soft Brexit survive, precisely because most voters are unfussed about the post-departure details.
Many Tory MPs fancy crashing out, but some will balk at damaging the economy. A pro-European post-Corbyn Labour leader could lead the push for something softer. By that time, few Britons will be listening.
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