There is no denying that Brexit has deeply divided the nation....
Central to the Brexit debate is the duty to fulfil the will of the people. The 2016 referendum revealed that by a narrow margin of only 3.78% of the voters the will of the people was to leave the European Union. It was a narrow margin but there was no question that a majority voted for Brexit on 23rd June 2016.
The question the politicians are now ducking is whether that is still the will of the people. In the normal run of politics our elected representatives are well aware that the will of the people changes and elections can lead to changes of Government and policies. That came close to happening last year when the Conservatives lost their overall majority and survived in office only with the support of the ten DUP MPs.
The problem we now face is that all sides in the Brexit debate claim to be committed to doing the will of the people. Theresa May claims that but says it means either her Chequer’s plan or no deal at all. Tory rebels reject the former and want the latter. The Labour Opposition is equally divided. Six of them voted with the Government, most favour a ‘soft Brexit’ whilst the far left want to leave a capitalist EU to pursue their socialist aims for Britain. Somewhere in this political mess the ‘will of the people’ seems to have got lost.
This is borne out by polling public opinion on three basic questions. First, is the Government handling Brexit well? The answer is emphatically ‘No’. 70% think it is doing a poor job and that includes Brexiteers who oppose the Chequers Plan and Remainers who don’t want to leave at all. Nor should the Labour Party take comfort from these findings because the polls still edge slightly in favour of the Conservatives despite their divisions and the slow progress of the negotiations with the EU.
The second key question is will the Prime Minister’s Chequers plan be the right deal for the UK? A post-Chequer’s poll revealed that 22% thought it would whilst 59% thought it would not. An ICM poll found that 44% thought Brexit would be bad for the economy and even among Leave voters only 22% expect Brexit would be good for the economy.
The third question is how many would vote differently in a second referendum? Every poll taken this year shows a small majority who would vote to remain in the EU. This is not to suggest that there have been lots of conversions on the Leave side. The country remains evenly balanced on the issue but those who didn’t vote in 2016, either through apathy or because they were too young to vote, are now more likely to vote Remain given the chance to do so.
That raises the obvious question. Should there be a second referendum, on the terms of the deal agreed with the EU, to be sure that Brexit really is the will of the people? Predictably, a majority of those who voted for Brexit oppose a second referendum whilst a majority of Remainers welcome the idea. The nation remains deeply divided and those who govern Britain in the next decade or two will need to eschew holding referenda and make healing the rift a top priority.