French President Emmanuel Macron has dropped a thinly veiled hint to the United Kingdom electorate that the exit from the European Union need not be a given and the door stood open for a change of heart.
German Foreign Minister Wolfgang Schäuble chimed in on cue. “If they want to change their decision, of course they would find open doors,” he said in an interview.
Macron, still bathing in his twin triumph in presidential and parliamentary polls was meeting with UK Prime Minister Theresa May, hanging on by her fingernails after her election went horribly wrong. Interestingly, she did not rebuff the invitation outright, choosing instead to stick to her prepared address.
But as I said, Macon and Schäuble were not speaking to her, but to a UK electorate more divided than ever over Brexit. Despite their overtures, prominent Remainer, Sir Andreas Whittam Smith, writing in the Independent newspaper, drew little comfort from the development.
He points to the fact that both the still ruling Conservatives and the resurgent Opposition Labour Party have Brexit as part of their official policies, and that an opinion poll taken before the election showed that support for Remain had sunk from its level of 48.1 per cent at last year’s referendum to 45 per cent.
First that opinion poll: It was taken in the wake of a steady drumbeat from the Brexit dominated Government Front Bench that the issue was settled; it was all over and that nothing could halt the advance to the EU exit. Given that, it is not surprising that some disappointed and disillusioned Remain supporters felt like throwing in the towel.
However, that same poll showed just 47 per cent would still vote to Leave, down from 51.9 per cent at the referendum — a bigger slide in support for Brexit than for Remain and indicating a small but significant number, around eight per cent, were now considering their options.
On Sir Andreas’ other point: That at the General Election 80 per cent of those voting chose one of the two main parties that support Brexit. This skates over any consideration of Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn’s actual commitment to the cause.
Through most of the campaign he tried to ignore the issue, preferring instead to concentrate on domestic policies such as re-nationalisation and education reform. He did say that if he was in charge of the Brexit negotiations he would not leave without a deal — a certain degree of ambivalence which suggests that if the deal were not good enough; not in the country’s best interests, he would consider his position.
We should also consider the question of whether the mood of the electorate has changed, and might change further.
Of course there will always be the rabid, UKIP-supporting Brixiteers who would rather sing about Britannia ruling the waves as the ship of state sinks beneath them, but there are others, who bought the false arguments that the UK would be better off outside the EU with more money for the National Health Service and an opportunity to widen the country’s trading interests.
These are people who might be regretting their initial decisions — the eight per cent who might like to change their vote, but see no opportunity to do so.
They should take heart. There is two years to go before the UK has to fall through the trapdoor. In a 650-strong Parliament run by a minority Government there will inevitably be by-elections, disagreements between partners and factions on the way forward. There will be anything but the stability May so fervently desires.
We must continue with the negotiations demanded by the Brexit referendum, but as Liberal Democrat Leader Tim Farron has long maintained, that vote was for a journey, not a destination.
The people of the United Kingdom deserve a chance to vote on the terms of exit when they are fully known and understood and not obscured by flag-waving nationalists. There must be a second referendum.