Monday, February 26

Support Grows for 2nd Vote: As Britain Stumbles Over Brexit



In a 2016 referendum, Stephanie Holtom voted to leave the European Union, worried about immigration and convinced that other countries were telling the British government what to do.

But outside a supermarket recently in a large, suburban strip mall not far from the Welsh city of Swansea, Ms. Holtom conceded she might have been wrong.

“I agreed to come out of Europe, but I am beginning to have second thoughts. I think it’s a mess, and I’m sick to death of it,” said Ms. Holtom, who is retired, as she collected her shopping cart. She added that, if there were a second referendum, “people would vote to stay.”

Since a majority of Britons voted narrowly to leave the bloc more than 18 months ago, most politicians have treated a withdrawal, known as Brexit, as inviolable. Even amid signs of a slowing economy, few saw signs of a shift in public opinion.

London may be almost 200 miles away, but people here in Wales have noticed that Prime Minister Theresa May is struggling to negotiate Britain’s departure from the bloc, and to control her bitterly divided cabinet. “I think Theresa May is absolutely hopeless,” Ms. Holtom said.

They even picked up support from an unexpected quarter when Nigel Farage, the former U.K. Independence Party leader and the leading proponent of Brexit, recently suggested that there might be a second referendum.

Prominent “leavers,” as supporters of Brexit are known, dismiss that possibility out of hand, but it may not be as far-fetched as they would have people believe.

Some time later this year Parliament is likely to face a fateful vote on the actual terms of any agreement Mrs. May can reach with the European Union on Britain’s withdrawal. A defeat in Parliament would prompt a political crisis, very likely topple Mrs. May and possibly prompt a general election. Potentially, that could open the way to a rethink, to new Brexit options, or to a second referendum.

Theresa May That is what people like the local Swansea lawmaker, Geraint Davies, from the opposition Labour Party, are banking on. He believes the tide is turning against Brexit in Wales, where a majority opted to quit, although Wales is a big recipient of European development aid, and has several industries that might lose from Brexit.

“What I am sensing is that people who voted Brexit in good faith are now saying, ‘Hold on, that’s not what I voted for, and I want a final say,’” Mr. Davies said, listing promises made during the 2016 referendum, including one — later ruled misleading by the country’s statistics authority — that quitting would free up 350 million pounds a week, or about $486 million, for health spending.

“You should have the right to look again, and say: ‘You ordered a steak and you ended up with a bit of chewed up bacon. Do you want to accept that?’” Mr. Davies added, arguing that Britain faces higher inflation and slower growth, and that, far from getting money back, it has offered around 39 billion pounds, or about $54 billion, in divorce payments to the European Union.

Mr. Davies and others have also pounced on recent reports that the areas in Wales and central and northern England that voted most strongly for Brexit are set to suffer the greatest economic harm from the rupture.

“There is some change on whether there should be another referendum on the issue,” he said. “We have seen a move towards the idea of the public having a greater say.”

Hard-line supporters (and opponents) of Brexit remain steadfast in their views, but many of the less committed have yet to fully focus on what it will mean and have been turned off by the stream of complex, sometimes contradictory, reports emerging from the tortuous negotiations. “It’s a bit like the O.J. Simpson trial: It keeps going on and on and people tune out of it,” Mr. Awan-Scully added.

And with signs that public opinion is volatile and could be shifting, the political ice is starting to crack.

When Tony Blair, a former prime minister, called last month for another plebiscite, Brexit supporters derided him as a pillar of a failed, elitist, pro-European establishment.

But it was hard to say the same when Mr. Farage suggested there should be another vote. Though Mr. Farage appeared later to retreat on the idea, Arron Banks, a big financial supporter of one of the Leave campaigns, endorsed it as well. For hard-line leave supporters, a referendum is a chance to once and for all kill off the argument to stay, and precipitate a clean break with the bloc.

Pro-Europeans, by contrast, would like a plebiscite on the specific terms of any deal negotiated by Mrs. May’s government, with the option to remain in the bloc if voters prefer.

Several things would have to happen to make that a reality, including a change of government policy and, almost certainly, of prime minister.

Some say it is too late to rethink the withdrawal, given that Britain has invoked its two-year exit clause. Others say that to date the shift in British public opinion, if any, is simply not big enough, and that Brexit support remains strong outside the big cities and in many working-class communities.

At the two extremes, these are starkly different prospects. A so-called soft Brexit could keep Britain integrated within the European Union’s economic model and part of its single market and customs union, accepting all its rules, albeit without having a say over them.

A hard Brexit might cut most of those ties, and take the country toward a low regulation, low tax economy “Europe’s Singapore” for example.

The problem is that there is no specific democratic mandate for either option, or even for Mrs. May’s preferred (though probably unobtainable) idea of something in between. So any outcome is likely to be contested for years to come.

Within Mrs. May’s government, the implications of Brexit are causing concern, even as hard-line Brexit supporters step up their campaign for a clean break from the bloc.

Following the leak of a government analysis that predicted the British economy would suffer under all of the most likely scenarios, one minister, Phillip Lee, wrote on Twitter that, if the figures were anywhere near right, there would be a serious question over whether a government could legitimately lead a country along a path that the evidence and rational consideration indicate would be damaging.

One obstacle to another referendum is the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, a lifelong Euroskeptic, who currently rejects the idea despite arguing that, unlike Mrs. May, he would negotiate a withdrawal that would protect British jobs.

Yet, if Mrs. May reaches a Brexit deal that takes Britain out of the bloc’s economic structures, Mr. Corbyn would face overwhelming pressure to oppose it, a move that, if successful, could bring down the government.

Mr. Davies argues that the Labour Party’s large number of youthful members the bedrock of Mr. Corbyn’s support — are strongly pro-European and want a second referendum.

Calls for a reconsideration of Brexit have come not only from Labour’s centrist lawmakers, but from some of Mr. Corbyn’s allies on the left, like Paul Flynn, a leading Labour member of Parliament from Wales.

“Isn’t it time to rethink this whole nonsense and plan for a second referendum where the nation comes to its senses?” Mr. Flynn recently asked at a parliamentary committee hearing.

Len McCluskey, a union leader and a close ally of Mr. Corbyn, wants Labour to oppose any Brexit deal that Mrs. May puts to Parliament, and has not ruled out supporting another referendum.

Of course, even if there were a second vote, it is far from clear that it would reverse the original verdict. Taking a break in central Swansea, Robert Hughes, a bus driver, said that as far as the Brexit talks are concerned, the public are “like mushrooms — we are kept in the dark.”

But he still supports Brexit. “We had a vote, it’s not best of three. Once it’s run, it’s run,” he said.

Back at the mall in Fforestfach, a spirited debate was going on in the coffee shop between two people whose views encapsulate some of Britain’s divisions.

Gerard Turley, director of an investment company and a Conservative Party voter, felt the pull of Brexit but concluded that the economic price would be too high.

“With my heart I wanted to go, but my head said stay,” he said, adding that he feels his decision to remain had been vindicated.

His wife, Christine Turley, a housewife, said that she voted to quit to stop “people in Brussels making our laws,” though she believes that, in fact, it was “too complicated a subject” for a straight yes or no vote.

“Now I’m not sure I made the right decision,” she added. “There is so much doom and gloom about how badly off we will be.”