Fighting Brexit: public opinion and cross-party co-operation

In the previous two posts in this series, I examined the legislative process and prospects for the EU negotiations. Our challenge is how to shape public opinion and move parliamentarians from other political parties to build an overwhelming national will to stop this Brexit madness, and in so doing attract more support for ourselves.

We can still stop Brexit. We can withdraw unilaterally our intention to leave the EU before 29 March 2019. Lord John Kerr, former head of the Diplomatic Service, has said as much, whilst Professor Sir Alan Ashwood has argued it “takes two to tango.”. UKlegalfuture is lobbying the Government to release its legal opinion. The verdict of litigation underway in Scotland might provide further ammunition.

We must be ready to counter accusations of being ‘undemocratic’. Democracy is a process. It did not begin and end on 23 June 2016. Voters can and do change their minds. There is no finality in a democracy, otherwise it isn’t a democracy as David Davis famously argued. Political parties and causes do not give up because they lose an election – they regroup to fight another day. Remainers respect the result of the 2016 referendum every bit as much as Leavers respected the result of the 1975 referendum. It is not democratic to try to shut down debate. Circumstances change. New facts emerge.

Unfortunately many leavers are still not correlating unfortunate evidence of lower economic growth, investment leaving the UK, a weaker pound, higher inflation, squeezed living standards, and a deterioration in public services since the EU referendum to the impact of Brexit. If they do, many regard it as a price worth paying for a delusional ‘independence’. These attitudes appeared even more entrenched amongst Leavers when I was campaigning before Christmas. However, what politics has been unable to change, the markets ultimately might. A possible second major fall in sterling, further relocation of jobs and declining investment could eventually register with enough voters.

At the moment, a referendum on the terms of any deal (with the option to remain) appears unlikely even though a now sizeable majority (50% to 34%) now want a referendum on the deal. Unless public opinion changes substantially from the continuing equal split between Remain and Leave in the next 10 months, growing support for a referendum will be insufficient to persuade enough MPs to support one on the terms.

To defeat Brexit, we need to increase co-operation with pro-European grass roots groups such as the European Movement, Best for Britain, and the groundswell of individuals on social media (who often use #FBPE on Twitter). We also need to continue engaging in cross-party efforts, e.g. Vince Cable’s participation in the recent Single Market summit.

Unfortunately, Jeremy Corbyn and his key allies appear to be “the handmaiden of Brexit” as Tony Blair put it in early January. Their empty vision of a Brexit for working people is already contributing to squeezing living standards, threatening jobs, reducing funding available for health and welfare, and undermining protection of (often EU-wide) working and social rights. Corbyn appears to be clinging to the illusion that the Single Market and Customs Union are incompatible with Labour’s economic programme. However, Labour does tend stay one small step ahead of Tory Brexit, e.g. proposing Single Market and Customs Union membership during the transition period before the Tories adopted this a few weeks later. Most recently Sir Keir Starmer has called for an independent economic impact assessment to be published before Parliament’s final Brexit vote.

Labour’s ‘destructive ambiguity’ on Brexit may have served it well in the 2017 General Election, but now the Labour leadership is clearly behind the curve of opinion within its own party and voters. Many (particularly the young) supported Labour in the 2017 General Election because they thought it opposed Tory hard Brexit. YouGov (17-19 December) found 63% of Labour voters wanted to stop Brexit with only 22% wanting it to proceed. Similarly, Queen Mary University of London found 87% of Labour members want to remain in the Single Market, 85% want to remain in the customs union, and 78% want a referendum on any Brexit deal.

Although Labour’s apparent alignment with Tory hard Brexit is good for us and membership, Labour still has a potentially pivotal role in stopping Brexit. A new Labour campaign group, Remain-Labour, argues only Labour can stop Brexit. Labour’s party before country Brexit strategy would appear to be aiming to give the Tories enough rope to hang itself. We should therefore not be surprised if Labour makes opportunistic last minute moves to stop, or at least soften, Brexit, particularly if the Government fails to reach a deal with the EU.

In the last post of this series, I’ll examine the prospects for an early General Election, a referendum on the terms and why it may succeed.

* Nick Hopkinson is chair of the Liberal Democrat European Group (LDEG) and former Director, Wilton Park, Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

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This entry was posted in Europe / International and Op-eds.


  • It is a bit frustrating when authors are submitting multiple articles on a subject and then not interacting with the commentators. What is the point of that?

    “now sizeable majority (50% to 34%) now want a referendum on the deal. ”
    The the use of 1 poll that was conducted well over a month ago is not really conclusive of argument, especially when a more recent poll on the 12th Jan showed the opposite only 36% in favour of a 2nd referendum compared to 43% who were against

  • John Marriott 15th Jan '18 - 1:47pm

    Clement Attlee’s ‘advice’ to Harold Laski may be appropriate here.

  • paul barker 15th Jan '18 - 2:40pm

    Brexit is one of those issues where 2 slightly different questions that seem to ask the same thing can give very different answers. Polling so far hasnt really got to the root of what Voters want.
    If we look at Polling asking the same question at regular intervals theres no doubt that there has been a shift against Brexit but so far, nothing like enough.
    However theres nearly 15 Months to go, a lot can happen in that time.
    One crucial event will be the Local Elections in May, if the story gets around that we are taking Votes from Labour that would greatly strengthen the hand of Labour Remainers.

  • Laurence Cox 15th Jan '18 - 2:54pm

    “We can withdraw unilaterally our intention to leave the EU before 29 March 2019.”

    Please be honest. You are quoting legal opinions not fact; others like Michel Barnier say it cannot be unilaterably revoked. The only way that we can revoke our Article 50 notification unilaterally is if the ECJ rules that it can be unilaterally revoked. This is why the Scottish legal action is so important:

  • paul barker 15th Jan '18 - 4:20pm

    We dont stand in Norther Ireland but I wonder if we could talk to our Sister Party Alliance about the possibility of backing a single Anti-Brexit Candidate in the upcoming Byelection ? The favourites are SF & of course they dont take their Seats, something that suits The Tories fine. An Anti-Brexit campaign could unite moderate Nationalists & Unionists ?

  • The problem with Brexiteers is they all voted for their own private Brexit. Some voted to pull up the drawbridge and not to let any foreigners in, some voted to get their sovereignty back (what ever that is, because they don’t actually seem to know what that means). Some voted to to return to a happier time (circa 1950’s or in some case even earlier), some voted to because their friends voted that way, some voted to teach the Tories a lesson. They all have a reason and in the majority of cases it doesn’t take much to see they had little to do with the EU, the EU became the whipping boy rather than assigning the problems they had to their rightful owner Westminster.

    They now seem to be slightly embarrassed about the vote and just want it over with and forgotten so we can all move on. The problem is no one can get the problems the vote released back in the box. They where warned don’t open that box only problems will fly out, but they disregarded the experts and opened it while muttering “I hope it’s full of chocolates”.

  • John Marriott 15th Jan '18 - 6:34pm

    Labour won’t play ball – witness the empty chair at the recent meeting of opposition parties convened by the SNP. People voted ‘out’ for many reasons; but, for me, all roads lead to immigration.

  • John,

    So it’s all about a subject Westminster could have done more about but didn’t. Thanks for clarifying that, still why blame Westminster when you can blame the EU. I do hope the Libertarian wing of the Tory party don’t get their way because if they do you’ll be seeing a lot of cheap immigrants.

    They wouldn’t do that you thunder. Read on John, they have already started to play the mood music that says they will.

    This year’s harvest of one of the British Isles’ best loved crops – the Jersey Royal new potato – could be hit by a shortage of migrant workers because of Brexit, farmers have warned……………………………………….

    Some farmers have begun to explore hiring staff from outside the EU, including Kenya. The farmers’ union has been working with a recruitment agency to bring in staff from Romania, with the first due to arrive next week. “We hope in the short term that might be the answer to our labour requirements,” said Le Maistre.

    We are addicted to cheap Labour and what you want won’t change that addiction, it will just change the colour of the Labour. Not an issue to me, but it is to many Brexiteers. Until Westminster can break that addiction, immigration will continue no matter what May says, unless of cause they crash the economy at that point we may all be in the fields.

  • Richard O'Neill 15th Jan '18 - 11:46pm

    I just didn’t get the point of the empty chair. Why taunt Corbyn like that? It smacked of party politics by four parties disappointed by their electoral showing against the surprise Corbyn juggernaut.

    If a cross party movement to thwart Brexit emerges it needs to be tolerant and consensual, not partisan.

  • Nick Hopkinson 16th Jan '18 - 3:00pm

    Thanks for the various comments. Putting together the series has been a substantial undertaking but hopefully for some it may offer a coherent big picture. A few responses to some of the points made: 1. A poll is indeed a poll but there appears to be a trend in favour of a referendum; 2. It is indeed disappointing that there has not been a more marked shift to Remain so far, but remember we are up against the government machine and much of the media opinion. Reality is gradually dawning; 3. I was indeed only referring to legal opinion, but it is worth noting today that European leaders (notably Tusk) stated the door is still open should we wish to remain in.

  • For as long as views on Brexit remain ‘frozen’, we’re going to be on a glidepath towards Brexit. If – and only if – views change will we depart that glidepath; if attitudes change markedly then even most Tories will find excuses to change course.

    So, why are views so apparently fixed?

    When things got too much for her a former colleague used to say, “Stop the world; I want to get off” and I suspect that same sentiment is at work here with the EU cast as the source of multiple frustrations – unaffordable housing, poor wages, zero-hour contracts and the rest. It’s not unreasonable to blame the EU but, in my view, misses the real target which is the intellectual monoculture of neoliberalism that’s infected everyone including the Lib Dems, making them LINOs (Liberal In Name Only) – something to walk all over.

    We need to get away from the sterile pantomime argument about the EU (‘It’s awful! – Oh, no it isn’t!’) and have a proper debate. And, since this is a ‘negotiation’ with the voters, that debate needs to demonstrate (a) that the Brexit case is deeply flawed and (b) that there is a viable alternative for people to latch onto (no TINA here).

    The first should be easy because of the May government’s incompetence. E.g., with the clock ticking, there is now NO possibility of having customs infrastructure, staffing or software in place to leave the customs union in March 2019 so we MUST accept whatever transitional arrangements the EU proposes. Arch Brexiteer Richard North described the offer as becoming a “vassal state”. Far from “taking back control” it amounts to completely giving up any control. My reading is that if we go down this road, it’s goodbye City (and most of it’s tax revenues) over a few years. I suspect it’s also goodbye to much of our manufacturing. So, goodbye NHS.

    The alternative is that dissatisfaction with the existing EU is widespread across Europe, so we are not out on a limb. Also, the EU is in crisis, particularly but not uniquely, the eurozone and no competent politician should ever let a good crisis go to waste. There are coalitions to be made and changes to be forced on a reluctant bureaucracy.

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