Brexit: Why Remainers have reason to keep hoping for a second referendum
London Letter :Silver lining of no-deal fear is remote chance of second referendum
British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn: decision at its annual conference to keep open the option of backing a second referendum was a major boost for Remainers. Photograph: Olivier Hoslet
Passing through the heavy, oak door and down the narrow staircase, the gurgle of voices grew louder, rising above the tinkle of ice cubes in a glass and the plonk of a cork coming out of a bottle. I saw them on the way in, grouped around their favourite table in the corner, but avoided eye contact for now as the barman gave his familiar greeting, at once reassuring and unsettling.
“The usual, sir?”
I asked for something different and he looked at me with huge, tragic eyes that said it was two days after the end of a long weekend of hard partying and my capricious order had snapped the delicate thread from which the last remnant of hope had been suspended. I took the drink and turned towards the trio in the corner.
There was Nick, an affable, pink-cheeked Conservative activist; Duncan, a political weather vane nobody had ever seen buying a drink; and Freddie, the bitterest Remainer in England. Short and pudgy with great, pointed ears, Freddie has the face of a spiteful goblin, his mouth half-open in a permanent sneer that discloses a row of brown teeth collapsing into one another and jutting outwards like crooked tombstones.
“He’s not as nice as he looks,” one of the others said when we first met.
“Well, oracle?” he said with his greasiest smile.
“Well, indeed,” I said.
“Well, what have you got to tell us?” he said sharply, the smile gone.
I delivered a brutal account of the Salzburg summit, playing up the contrast between the rigour and discipline of the Europeans and the cluelessness of the prime minister’s ultimatum telling them to accept Chequers or risk a no-deal Brexit. Then, like a parent telling children a ghost story, I took them through some of the more terrifying scenarios for Britain in the negotiations between now and Christmas.
Duncan went a little pale and Nick said we’d better have another drink but Freddie began to cackle with delight, rocking back and forth.
“Did you see the latest? Our farmers won’t be able to export to Europe for six months. And Northern Ireland will be plunged into darkness because they’ll have no electricity,” he said.
Earlier that day, on the Kings Road in Chelsea, I’d run into a rather grand acquaintance who told me she was getting ready for a day of action on Saturday for the People’s Vote, a campaign for a second Brexit referendum.
“Normally I’d never want anything to do with anything that invokes the name of the people but we have to get out of this mess,” she said.
For ardent Remainers like that woman and Freddie, the current chatter about the likelihood of a no-deal Brexit is a cause for hope. They believe that if the prime minister is unable to secure a deal parliament will vote against leaving the EU without an agreement.
Labour’s decision at its annual conference this week to keep open the option of backing a second referendum was a major boost for Remainers, along with shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer’s prediction that the party will almost certainly vote against any deal the prime minister brings back.
In his closing speech to conference, Jeremy Corbyn made an unexpected offer to May to back her deal if it includes a customs union, keeps the Border open and protects jobs. In theory, this opens up the possibility that the prime minister could secure parliamentary approval for a soft Brexit deal with Labour votes.
In practice, the politics of both parties makes such an outcome unlikely. It would cause a split in the Conservatives that could precipitate a challenge to May’s leadership. And Labour, which wants a general election as soon as possible, has no incentive to associate itself with any Brexit deal, not least because of the economic disruption that is likely to follow even the softest Brexit.
Reversing Brexit remains a remote possibility and the hurdles in the way of a second referendum are formidable but the more badly the negotiations go in the next few weeks, the more Remainers like Freddie have reason to keep hoping.