New Brexit Referendum Gains Traction as Way to End Gridlock

(Bloomberg) -- In the corridors of the U.K. Parliament, an idea that four months ago seemed laughable is now being seriously discussed. Is another referendum a way out of the Brexit deadlock?

Speaking privately, some ministers raise it unprompted. At a press conference on Tuesday, leaders of the smaller opposition parties urged the government to consider it as a contingency worth preparing for.

New Brexit Referendum Gains Traction as Way to End Gridlock

Most significantly, Prime Minister Theresa May has floated it as a possible outcome. She still says she opposes the idea and that it would reduce trust in the political process -- but it’s still a shift for her to even mention it.

It’s not the only previously unthinkable idea that May has talked about this week. Fighting off a challenge to her leadership from pro-Brexit Conservative members of Parliament, the premier warned that deposing her would mean delaying Britain’s departure from the European Union. That’s not something she admitted was possible last month.

The argument for a second referendum advanced by one minister was simple: If nothing can get through Parliament -- and it looks like nothing can -- the question needs to go back to voters.

The Sunday Times reported that David Lidington, effectively May’s deputy, held talks with opposition lawmakers to try to build a cross-party consensus on a new vote. The newspaper also reported that May has discussed the idea of another referendum with her predecessor David Cameron, saying that she’d back a second poll if MPs voted for it.

While campaigners for a second vote have mostly been those who want to reverse the result of the last one and keep Britain inside the EU, that’s not the reason a lot of new supporters are coming round to the idea.

One Cabinet minister said this week he wanted a second referendum on the table to make clear to Brexit supporters in the Conservative Party that the alternative to May’s deal is no Brexit at all.

Even Nigel Farage, former leader of the UKIP party that pushed the 2016 vote, on Friday urged supporters to be ready for another referendum.

‘Get Ready’

Speaking at rally in London, the Press Association quoted Farage as saying: "My message folks tonight is: As much as I don’t want a second referendum, it would be wrong of us on a Leave Means Leave platform not to get ready, not to be prepared for a worst-case scenario.”

Putting pressure on Brexiteers is also the reason there’s more talk of delaying the U.K.’s departure. At the moment, many Brexit-backers are talking openly about running down the clock to March so they can get the hard Brexit they want. Extending the process -- which is easier than many appreciate -- takes that strategy off the table.

In the past, the assumption about a second referendum is that it would be a disaster for May. But structured right, it could get her out of a hole. A two-stage vote, where people were first asked whether they wanted to remain or leave, and then if they preferred May’s deal or a no-deal Brexit, could see her blueprint win as the compromise between two extremes.

According to The Times, Cabinet Office officials are discussing plans to offer voters a choice between May’s deal and a no-deal Brexit, while also including on the ballot a choice for remaining in the EU.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.