The United Kingdom is in a divided muddle over Brexit, even as the draft of a tentative deal has been reached at long last.
But through all the double, double toil and trouble in the tragedy that should be known as Macbrexit, there’s growing agreement on this: When the hurly-burly’s done and all the battles are lost or won on an agreement to ease the UK out of the European Union, voters deserve a chance to weigh in on the final result.
On Monday, Gordon Brown, the last Labour Party prime minister, called for a second Brexit vote, saying crucial issues had not been satisfactorily settled. That came just days after Transport Minister Jo Johnson, brother of better-known Boris, resigned from the Conservative-led government with a cogent cry of conscience. Saying the deal taking shape was dramatically different from what Brexit proponents had promised, Johnson declared that “it would be an absolute travesty if we don’t go back to the people and ask if they want to exit the EU on this extraordinarily hopeless basis.”
He added: “To those who say that is an affront to democracy given the 2016 result, I ask this: Is it more democratic to rely on a three-year-old vote based on what an idealised Brexit might offer, or to have a vote based on what we know it does actually entail?”
Former Conservative prime minister John Major has also endorsed a second vote, noting that unlike the June 2016 vote, it would now be based on “fact not fantasy.” Former Labour prime minister Tony Blair, of course, has long argued that voters deserve a say on the real Brexit deal. In September, London Mayor Sadiq Khan added his voice to the second-vote cause, noting that in backing Brexit, the British people hadn’t voted “to make themselves poorer” or “to watch their businesses suffer,” as now looks to be the case.
To be sure, those figures were all Remainers at the time of the June 2016 vote.
But not Boris Johnson, whose primrose-path pronouncements about Brexit helped fuel the Leave campaign. He resigned as foreign secretary in July in protest over the Brexit terms favored by Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May. Or insurance magnate Arron Banks, a major funder of the Leave movement, who earlier this month declared that given what’s transpired since, he now wishes he had voted to remain in the EU. Or Nigel Farage, the former leader of UK Independence Party. In January, he made, and then walked back, a quasi-call for a second vote. Mind you, Farage says he still favors Brexit; he purports to think a second victory would decide the issue once and for all.
Meanwhile, polls show Britons themselves think another public vote would be a good thing.
So what is keeping it from happening? In basic terms, two politicians who won’t change their minds or their course. The first is May, who has staked her reputation on getting a deal done and is adamant there won’t be a second vote.
The second is equally stubborn Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn. Mind you, Labour’s official stand holds open the possibility of a second vote if May can’t reach an agreement or if the possible failure of such an agreement in Parliament doesn’t trigger a general election.
No wonder, then, that Corbyn, a hard-left Eurosceptic, created a ruckus in his own party by telling a German news outlet last week that Brexit couldn’t be stopped. The result: disagreement that bordered on a rebuke from other Labour MPs.
The issue here obviously goes beyond Britain itself. At a time when the internationalist instinct of the United States has faltered, and when Angela Merkel, arguably the most important current Western leader, is in her final few years as German chancellor, it would strengthen the West to have the UK re-embrace Europe. Polls suggest, with the consequences becoming clearer, this time around, Remain would likely win a narrow victory.
But either way, the critics are right. On something this big, British voters deserve the final say.