LONDON: Nigel Farage’s surprise call for Britain to prepare for a second EU referendum has ignited hopes among anti-Brexit campaigners that both sides of the debate will back a poll on Theresa May’s final deal.
The former UKIP leader shocked his colleagues on Thursday by suggesting another Brexit vote, arguing it would lead to a more decisive victory for the leave campaign and silence remain supporters for a generation.
His intervention was immediately seized on by those who believe another referendum is the best way of overturning the result, including former Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg and Labour peer Andrew Adonis, as it was seen as a sign that political pressure is building for a poll on the final deal.
Although the prime minister has insisted she will not allow another referendum, bookmakers Coral and Betfair slashed the odds on another poll before the end of 2019 to 5-1.
Some suggested it could make it easier for Labour to shift its position to supporting another referendum on May’s final Brexit deal, joining the Lib Dems, who have already called for a second poll.
But it could also fuel divisions within Labour. The party leadership currently maintains that there is no need for another popular vote – in contrast to some of its pro-EU backbenchers.
Chuka Umunna, a former shadow cabinet minister, said Farage was for the “first time in his life” making a valid point and the British people have “every right to keep an open mind about Brexit”.
The most natural time for a second EU referendum would be a poll on whether to accept any deal that May negotiates with Brussels before the date of Brexit in March 2019, or whether the UK should leave without an agreement if she fails to secure one.
If parliament were to vote against May’s deal with the EU, it could provoke another referendum on the issue or a general election in which Brexit was the central issue.
Recent data suggests the public is still fairly evenly split on the issue but a poll by YouGov showed 53% of people would like a final vote on the deal.
Farage first floated the idea on Channel 5’s The Wright Stuff: “My mind is actually changing on all this. What is for certain is that the Cleggs, the Blairs, the Adonises will never, ever, ever give up. They will go on whingeing and whining and moaning all the way through this process.
“So maybe, just maybe, I’m reaching the point of thinking that we should have a second referendum on EU membership … I think that if we had a second referendum on EU membership, we would kill it off for a generation.”
Farage later backtracked from the notion that he actively wanted another referendum, but said leave supporters must “face this potential threat” and start organising for another campaign.
“We must ready ourselves for the possibility of one last dramatic battle,” he wrote in the Telegraph.
“It may not be what we want, but it could be unavoidable. In the next few months, committed leavers must prepare for a second poll and get ready to start campaigning.
“They must pressurise MPs in their constituencies. The best defence of our dramatic referendum victory is to be alive to the possibility of having to do it all over again.”
The idea of another referendum was also backed by Farage’s ally Arron Banks, who helped bankroll one of the leave campaigns.
“If we do not act radically now, we will sleepwalk into a faux Brexit, in name only,” he said. “True Brexiteers have been backed into a corner, and the only option now is to go back to the polls and let the people shout from the rooftops their support of a true Brexit. Leave would win by a landslide.”
Farage’s readiness to accept a second EU referendum quickly became a cause for celebration among pro-EU campaigners, who hold out hope that public opinion is turning away from leaving the EU, as a result of its economic risks.
Clegg, the former deputy prime minister and Lib Dem leader, tweeted: “I agree with Nigel.” Adonis added: “Farage wants a referendum on Mrs May’s Brexit deal. I agree. Bring it on!”
Mark Malloch Brown, a peer who chairs the Best for Britain campaign, said another referendum was “something that the country needs”.
“With these comments, Nigel Farage is disowning the chaos that trying to leave the EU has wrought on this country. He and his Brexiteer allies have zero ideas of what would come next,” he said.
Tom Brake, a Lib Dem MP and his party’s spokesman on Brexit, said support was now growing on both sides of the argument for a vote on the final deal, although the Lib Dems were the only major party that advocated another poll in their election manifesto.
“Farage shouldn’t be so confident of winning – people are now far more aware of the costs of Brexit and the fabrications of the left campaign,” he said.
However, the idea infuriated Farage’s own party and Conservative ministers responsible for carrying out Brexit, as they have argued relentlessly since the referendum that the result must be respected.
Leave-supporting Tory MPs suggested Farage was simply seeking attention at a time when UKIP has lost its purpose and slumped in the polls. MP Andrew Bridgen said: “The moment the public voted to leave the EU, and a Conservative government are enacting that, then unfortunately for UKIP, they are superfluous. I think that’s what it’s about.
“I do agree with Mr Farage that if we had another referendum it would result in an overwhelming vote to leave. But there is no need to do it. I have some sympathy with his remarks that it would deal with the recalcitrant remainders, but the result has to be accepted.”
Steve Baker, a Brexit minister, said the former UKIP leader’s comments were “further confirmation of my long-held view that Nigel Farage is one of the greatest impediments to a successful Brexit”.
The prime minister’s official spokesman said: “We will not be having a second referendum.”