The Brexit reality of 2019 bears no resemblance to the Brexit fantasy promised in the 2016 referendum. So we now need a People’s Vote to check whether the public still want to quit the European Union.
But that is not the only reason for a new referendum. Parliament is deadlocked. Many MPs don’t want the government’s miserable deal and they do not want to crash out of the EU with no deal either. What is more, all other versions of Brexit can only be delivered by first signing up to the prime minister’s deal, otherwise they themselves are fantasies. With Parliament unable to decide what to do, the only sensible way forward is to ask the people what they want.
These two reasons are connected. If Theresa May had been able to deliver a Brexit that met the promises of 2016, Parliament would not be deadlocked. MPs would be giving her deal the thumbs up. But the prime minister could not deliver the “cake-and-eat-it” fantasy of Boris Johnson, the former foreign secretary, for the simple reason that it does not exist. In the real world, you cannot have your cake and eat it. You need to make trade-offs.
Let us recall for a moment the Leave campaign’s main economic promises. Britain would keep access to the EU’s single market but without following its rules. And Britain would cut lots of other amazing trade deals around the world. Mrs May’s deal achieves none of this. We will lose partial access to the EU market, which is responsible for roughly half our trade, and that will make us poorer.
We will follow lots of its rules but will no longer have a role in making them, becoming what Mr Johnson rightly calls a “vassal state”. We will not take back control, the Brexit slogan of 2016; we will lose control.
Meanwhile, the prime minister has agreed an arrangement that could keep us indefinitely inside the EU’s customs union, making it virtually impossible to cut trade deals with other countries. Even worse, we will have to follow the bloc’s trade policies without a vote on them—again losing, rather than taking back, control.
The one key promise that may be kept, although we will not know the details for years, is to end free movement of people into Britain from the EU. But this could be a two-edged sword. As fewers nurses, midwives and other key workers come here from Europe and more return home, according to a report in April from the Nursing and Midwifery Council, it is becoming even more apparent how valuable they are.
Brexiters now say it would be undemocratic to hold a People’s Vote as that would overturn the “will” of the people. What nonsense. As David Davis, the government’s first Brexit secretary, used to say: “If a democracy cannot change its mind, it ceases to be a democracy.”
So much has changed in the past two and a half years that the people have every right to change their “will”. It is not just that the prime minister’s deal is so much worse than the fantasy of 2016. Donald Trump is now in the White House undermining the rules-based world order, and Vladimir Putin’s agents are accused of poisoning people in Salisbury. The geopolitical case for working together with our European friends to solve common problems and grasp common opportunities is even stronger than it was.
Another argument against a People’s Vote is that it would further divide an already angry country. While we should not pretend that our country can miraculously come together, a new referendum could be part of the healing process.
Part of the answer is to engage in an honest debate rather than to peddle fantasies. One of the dishonesties of the Leave campaign was the claim that the government would have tens of billions of pounds more to spend each year if we quit the EU. It is exactly the opposite, as an analysis of the government’s deal by the independent Institute for Fiscal Studies shows.
More and more politicians are calling for the “dividend” we would get from staying in the EU to be spent on tackling the underlying causes of Brexit. These include funds for parts of the country starved of investment and areas where there have been sudden or significant population changes. If this is done, a People’s Vote could help bring the country together.
Yet another argument against a new referendum is that it would betray those who voted to leave the EU. But it is worth reflecting for a moment that it was the architects of the Leave campaign who betrayed these voters. Mr Johnson and Michael Gove, the other key leader of the official Leave campaign, made promises they could not deliver.
We have wasted far too much time on fantasies. A mature democracy deals in realities. We must now check whether the people want the reality of this particular Brexit or the reality of staying in the EU.
Hugo Dixon is the deputy chairman of the People’s Vote, and the editor-in-chief and chairman of InFacts, both advocacy groups supporting a new Brexit referendum.