As Brexit Crunch Nears, Campaign for New Referendum Gathers Pace

December 7, 2018 Updated: December 9, 2018

LONDON—After losing the most contentious referendum in British history, James McGrory went for a drink in The Hope pub near London’s medieval meat market. Amid butchers in bloodied coats, his dream of reversing Brexit seemed hopeless.

Two years later, with the country in crisis over how or whether to leave the European Union, McGrory is feeling more confident that his campaign can help secure another referendum that he hopes would overturn the 2016 result.

The idea of a second referendum has been gathering support from some senior British politicians and seems to have traction with sections of public opinion, but the political situation is so uncertain that it is hard to say whether this will actually translate into another vote, and when or how that might done, or what question might be put.

“We have gone from being seen as a fringe view, dismissed and laughed at, to now being at the center of the Brexit debate,” McGrory, the 36-year-old campaign director of the People’s Vote campaign, said in an interview.

“The odds are getting shorter every day that we get another referendum. All the momentum is with our campaign.”

Betting odds show there is a 43 percent probability of an EU referendum before 2020. Gamblers think there is a 55 percent probability that Britain does not leave as planned on March 29.

Opinion polls suggest there has been a slight shift by voters toward remaining in the EU, but the public remains broadly split down the middle.

It remains unclear how exactly a second vote might be called, though some lawmakers have drafted a detailed road map, setting out possible legislative routes to another referendum.

Meanwhile, campaigners for another vote are busy lobbying parliament and trying to drum up public support with rallies and on social and mainstream media. They note Prime Minister Theresa May has included their desired outcome as one of three options facing the country: her deal, no deal, or reversing Brexit.

Vote Reversed?

Turning Brexit upside down would mark one of the most extraordinary reversals in modern British history and likely alienate the 17.4 million people who voted to leave the EU.

The path to a new referendum is fraught with crisis.

May’s Brexit deal has first to be voted down in parliament on Dec. 11. Second, her government has to endure an attempt by the opposition Labour Party to topple it and then call a national election.

With the clock ticking down to March 29 and financial markets pricing in what would be a potentially disorderly exit, McGrory and his campaigners hope Britain’s politicians will accept they have come to a dead end and throw the question back to voters.

On Dec. 4, just hours before a five-day parliamentary debate on May’s deal, an adviser to the European Court of Justice said Britain could revoke its formal divorce notice. The court is due to rule on Dec. 10.

Even if there was a change in mood there would be controversy about what the question would be and whether another referendum would deliver a different result.

In recent months, pro-EU campaigners have been feeling more optimistic. In October, the People’s Vote organized a march of almost 700,000 people through London demanding another vote.

“The tables have turned,” said McGrory. “We are the underdog. We are the scrappy campaign that is doing things a bit differently.”

The mood in the headquarters of the People’s Vote in Millbank Tower close to parliament is bullish.

Young people examine charts of target audiences and organize an advertising blitz to convince lawmakers to block the government’s deal.

“If anyone thinks Brexit is a done deal they should be ready for another surprise,” McGrory said.

By Andrew MacAskill