I can tell you the precise moment when I felt the chances of getting a People’s Vote on the final Brexit deal moved from unlikely to probable. It was when Theresa May categorically ruled it out.
She did so with the same sub-Thatcher tone of voice and the same absolutist death stare that she employed when ruling out a snap election; when ruling out paying a vast bill to leave the EU; when ruling out manifesto-breaking tax rises.
This is a prime minister for whom no position is beyond sacrifice if it allows her another day’s respite. Hers is a day-to-day premiership saddled by fate, and the careless arrogance of her predecessor, with the biggest set of challenges faced by any prime minister since Churchill and Attlee.
It was cold, hard logic that drove her to the changes mentioned above. Poll leads that made the temptation of a general election “to strengthen my hand in the Brexit negotiations” irresistible. Weakness in the UK’s Brexit negotiating position that made the exit bill but one of many realities crashing into the fantasies sold by the Leave campaign. A crisis in the NHS that made tax rises inevitable.
Similar cold, hard logic will drive her or, if she refuses, her successor, to the People’s Vote position she is currently so adamant in opposing.
The normal pattern of a referendum is a passionate debate followed by a sense of unity. That simply has not happened. A cabinet agreement reached after two years of trying fell apart in two days and saw two senior ministers dive overboard. The cabinet remains divided and her leadership under threat. Both main parties are divided. Parliament is so divided there is no final Brexit plan that can command support. The country remains divided, and few, whether they voted Remain or Leave, believe the government is handling the negotiations well.
Even among the Brextremists, aside from Boris Johnson’s self-serving bluster and Jacob Rees-Mogg’s unicorns, few any longer argue this will be good for the country, merely that the people voted for it and so, whatever the cost or the chaos, we have to make it happen. Will of the people. And fatalism. The only arguments they have left.
But what if the will of the people has changed? When did democracy become a moment, in June 2016, rather than a process in which the big decisions facing the country are tested in the furnace of public and parliamentary debate? When did asking the people their view, as to whether this confirms their understanding of Brexit meaning Brexit, suddenly become anti-democratic?
We now know so much more than we did. We know how many lies were told, on both sides, but with the real whoppers coming from the lips of Johnson and Farage. We know laws were broken, on the Leave side. We know that what was made out to be a simple process is turning out to be of a mind-boggling, and dangerous, complexity. We know that Trump’s ascendancy to the White House makes this the worst possible time to be trusting the US as our closest ally.
We know there are clear options, and we know much more what they mean. Stay. Or go. Go with a bad deal – because even by the government’s own admission there is no deal better than the one we have. Or go with no deal at all, and provoke the kind of chaos in which Johnson, Rees-Mogg, Farage and their wealthy friends and benefactors may thrive and prosper, but millions of their fellow citizens will not.
I have met both Rees-Mogg and Farage in recent weeks and both have assured me if there was another referendum their side would win by an even greater margin than 52-48. In which case, bring it on. Because this time people really will be able to know what they are voting for or against. Far from weakening democracy, a People’s Vote on the deal will strengthen it.
As things stand, for very different reasons both Ms May and Jeremy Corbyn are opposed to a People’s Vote. Cold, hard logic will drive them to it. As to who gets there first, my money is on May. Wishful thinking?
Alastair Campbell is the editor-at-large of The New European and an adviser to the People’s Vote campaign