Rationality may prevail with a new Brexit vote

Globe Staff Photo Illustration; Adobe Stock

A wry Churchillian observation about this country suddenly seems apt for the United Kingdom. “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing — after they’ve tried everything else,” Winston is often said to have said.

Unable to find a satisfactory way to exit the European Union, UK policy makers are at long last moving toward the most sensible option: a second public vote on whether to leave at all. At the time of the 2016 vote, Britons were assured they could have their tea cake and eat it too. That is, leave the EU with little consequence.


Since then, it’s become increasingly clear that that just isn’t so. And so now, at the 11th hour, the Labor Party has rightly said that, rather than lurch into a calamitous Brexit decampment, Britain should hold a second public vote on the matter.

That stand, taken — at last — on Monday, is basically what former Labor premier Tony Blair has longed urged. Current Labor leader Jeremy Corbyn, however, had hoped to use turmoil over Brexit to bring down Theresa May’s Conservative coalition government.

That didn’t happen. Although her proposed Brexit deal was defeated by an astonishing 230 votes, May herself survived a no-confidence vote, leaving her to muddle obstinately along.

And so, worried that Parliament will be left to choose between an unsatisfactory deal or no deal at all, Labor embraced rationality. It’s probably less because Corbyn, a longtime EU critic, really wants a second vote than because of defections by pro-EU Labor MPs.

Then on Tuesday, May, faced with insurrection within her own ranks, made a move of her own. She promised a March 12 vote on her final Brexit plan and, if that fails, further tallies on whether to move forward with a no-deal Brexit or to seek a delay beyond the scheduled March 29 exit date to allow for more (!) negotiations.


Some UK analysts still consider a second referendum unlikely. Yet four underlying realities now seem likely to drive Parliament in that direction.

First, with the UK’s banking, industrial, and insurance sectors weighing in with dire warnings, there’s an increasing understanding that Brexiting without a deal would be an economic calamity.

“The biggest fear is about a No Deal Brexit, and that is really focusing minds,” Baroness Angela Smith of Basildon, leader of Labor in the House of Lords, tells me via e-mail.

Second, the prospect of May producing a widely acceptable Brexit deal seems very unlikely. Third, a solid majority of UK voters now believes leaving the EU would be a mistake. Brexit won by 52 percent to 48 percent; voters now tell pollsters, 56 percent to 44 percent, that they want to stay in the EU, with 56 percent also favoring a second vote. Labor’s declaration that it will seek such a vote if and when Parliament rejects its own soft-Brexit plan gives those voters something to rally around. Finally, pragmatic politicians don’t like being blamed for a debacle — particularly if there’s an anger-avoidance escape hatch available.


Stir all that together, and a second vote seems increasingly likely, which is a positive development for the UK and the West. At a time when the president of the United States shows little commitment to a robust Western alliance, it’s important to have a strong, united, and focused Europe. With some, there’s been a strange fixity on the idea that voters’ 2016 verdict, made in the abstract, without an accurate picture of what Brexit would entail, had to be honored.

Why? As Blair has said, UK citizens deserve the right to vote again once the specific terms of the divorce are clear.

Labor’s declaration makes such a vote a very real possibility. And that’s a good thing indeed. Voters, after all, aren’t paralyzed by the ego that so often prevents professional politicians from concluding they were wrong and reversing course.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.