In the discussions (on and offline) following my recent post ‘No Deal is Better than a Bad Deal’, one idea that came up a number of times was that there was a third option, to call the whole thing off. This was invariably suggested by people who had originally voted Remain.
Whilst including this option would make a much less snappy television show title, it is obviously theoretically correct that this is an option. I will even go further: if a significant proportion of Leave voters came to believe we should now stay in, that would at least warrant consideration of the matter. It wouldn’t be a simple decision – we don’t make national decisions through the fluctuations of opinion polls (otherwise we’d have left the EU a number of times during the ’90s and ’00s) – and I’d personally favour continuing to honour the referendum result, but it would at least be valid to consider it, particularly if the shift was sufficient and sustained.
The operative phrase in that paragraph, however, is this: ‘a significant proportion of Leave voters’. If a Remain voter says that the negotiations are going badly so we should remain in the EU, that doesn’t change the balance of opinion. This is someone who previously wanted to Remain and who now still wants to remain – and that viewpoint lost. And the vast majority of people who are taking this view, for example in the House of Lords or in the media, are Remain voters. I’m not saying all of them are acting in bad faith (though I’ve no doubt some are) – maybe they’ve gone from being mildly Remain to being very Remain – but it really is immaterial to the debate.
What would be needed for a reevaluation to be warranted is a large change of heart from the Leave side, and that simply hasn’t happened. The leaders of the Leave movement, whether in Cabinet or as represented in articles on sites such as Conservative Home and Brexit Central, continue to be pro-Leave. There may be some frustrations with the negotiations (often directed at those proposing more ‘Remainish’ options), but they’re not suggesting we Remain. And more importantly, the opinion polls also haven’t moved by more than 1-2%, at most. A visit to ukpollingreport.co.uk, which tracks this pretty regularly, shows that the polls on this issue have been pretty static for two years now, and currently stand in almost exactly the same place as on the eve of the referendum itself.
Because Remain voters significantly outnumber Leave voters in business, academia and the ‘Westminster bubble’ (as the referendum campaign demonstrated), it is quite easy for a false consensus to form, with articles and speeches proliferating that lament the progress of the negotiations and pressing the case for Remain. But these are being written by Remain voters and received by other Remain voters. Of course the authors don’t think things are going well. That’s entirely understandable: they didn’t want to Leave in the first place, so why would they? Tory voters don’t tend to rejoice in a Labour government delivering on its manifesto promises is a good thing, and neither do Labour voters cheer on the Conservatives. But unless the people who actually voted (and won a majority) for a cause of action start abandoning it, we have no cause to say its unsuccessful or to abandon it.
P.S. To anticipate a potential response to this, please do not respond by pointing out a specific example of a Leave voter who has changed their mind. Obviously some people have: over 17 million people voted Leave and over 16 million Remain, and if just 1% of them have changed their minds, that’s well over 100,000 on each side. The point is that only a very small proportion have, and not in sufficient numbers to fundamentally alter the balance.