17/01/2019 7:45 PM IST

Can Britain's Brexit Be Reversed?

A fresh referendum to stay in the EU is being pushed like never before.

When the UK voted to quit the European Union in 2016, the shock was palpable at home and abroad.

A stunned David Cameron was forced to resign as prime minister, and he was quickly replaced by Theresa May.

Donald Trump, who had given his support to the ‘Brexit’ campaign, seized on the populist uprising as a foretaste of America’s own ‘people’s revolt’ that would propel him into power later that year.

But more than two and a half years later, Brexit still hasn’t happened. 

That’s because it is an unprecedented and hugely complicated process to extract a country from the EU and its legal framework, especially one that has been a member of the trading bloc for more than 40 years.

It’s also because May’s government really didn’t know what kind of Brexit the Brits had voted for and what kind of divorce deal Brussels would agree to.

Like any separating couple, each side squabbled over who kept the car, the house, the size of the alimony and even custody of the kids (British citizens who live in the EU and Europeans who live in the UK).

This week, with just over 70 days until the UK is formally and legally due to leave the 28-country alliance, its parliament has rejected the divorce deal drafted by May and European leaders.

Lawmakers inflicted a massive, 230-vote defeat on the Prime Minister, throwing out her Brexit plans. 

More than 100 of her own Brexiteer Conservative MPs felt the proposals were not a clean enough break from the EU. 

Opposition Labour MPs felt that May’s package was so extreme it would damage jobs and trade with the country’s biggest economic partner.

Now, some in the UK are thinking the unthinkable - reversing the Brexit vote with a brand new referendum on May’s plans.

The EU has a habit of somehow overturning previous referendums by unhappy citizens. Twice in Ireland and once in Denmark, voters have initially rejected Brussels plans only to get ‘the right result’ in a second vote later. Can it happen in Britain too?

What’s the case for a new referendum?

As an island and former empire, Britain has never really been part of the inner-circle of EU states. For years, its politicians preferred to spend more time looking at what’s going on in Washington than focus on Brussels.

Add in decades of negative tabloid stories about what unelected ‘Eurocrats’ were doing, plus a deeper malaise about squeezed living standards in former industrial heartlands, and it’s no surprise 17 million people voted to ‘Leave’ in the last referendum in 2016.

But the result was close. 52% voted ‘Leave’, 48% voted ‘Remain’. And the referendum choices were silent on what kind of Brexit would happen. Would it be ‘hard Brexit’, with tariffs on goods from the EU?  Would it be ‘soft Brexit’, with EU migrants still allowed to travel freely?

Since last summer, supporters of a new referendum launched a high profile campaign for a ‘People’s Vote’ (they never call it a ‘second referendum’ as that sounds like a re-run of the first poll). Their main argument is that the public have a right to endorse or reject the kind of Brexit deal their government has finally drafted.

Does the referendum campaign have momentum?

Yes. It has money (lots of companies worry about Brexit), a well-organised media team (many of whom once worked for former prime minister Tony Blair, himself a keen backer).

The biggest boost came when the Labour Party shifted its position at its party conference last autumn. 

“If we cannot get a general election, Labour must support all options remaining on the table, including campaigning for a public vote,” the policy stated.

More than 85% of Labour Party members want a new vote and large numbers want to stay in the EU. They think that on workers’ rights, environmental protections and most of all on helping jobs and the economy, staying in the bloc is the best course.

Some Tory MPs too are vociferous supporters, and given that there is no government majority in the House of Commons, it would only in theory take seven of them to back a new law for a referendum.

The heavy defeat for May’s own plan for Brexit this week has prompted calls for fresh thinking on all sides. With all other forms of Brexit lacking the required majority, supporters say it’s a People’s Vote will be the ‘last resort’ solution.

There are even people in No.10 Downing Street who have flirted with the idea.

So why hasn’t a new referendum been called?

One big problem is that Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn sounds unconvinced. Only this week he told his MPs privately that he worried about the ‘neoliberal economics’ of Brussels and the way the. EU competition rules made it harder to enact socialism at home. 

Corbyn is also worried that overturning the result of the last referendum will cost Labor support in its traditional working class heartlands and in marginal seats where many of his party supporters voted ‘Leave’. His closest aides stress that a public vote is just one option and not the ‘default’ or ‘preferred’ option.

The real problem is one of numbers in parliament. Even among his own party, just around 80 Labour MPs have come out to back a People’s Vote.

There is also the difficulty of what kind of question to put on the ballot paper. Would it include May’s defeated deal? Would it include a no-deal exit where the UK crashes out of the EU without any agreement at all?

And it could all take a very long time too. Legal requirements on impartiality mean it could take at least a year to hold a new referendum. 

Can a new referendum campaign win?

To actually succeed, any Remain referendum campaign would have to enthuse voters in a way it failed in 2016.

Britain’s politicos were glued to their TV screens recently to watch a drama-documentary ‘Brexit: The Uncivil War’ starring Sherlock’s Benedict Cumberbatch. 

The drama was a reminder of the brilliant slogan used by the Leave campaign: ‘Vote Leave, Take Back Control’.  Like Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’, it struck a raw nerve among many voters who felt neglected and ignored by the political system and by globalisation.

One Leave voter in a focus group in the TV movie put it well: “I’m sick of it! I’m sick of feeling like I have nothing, like I ‘know’ nothing, like I AM nothing!”

Already, Brexiteers are raising money and have another powerful slogan aimed at capturing workers’ anger at being ignored by the London elites: “Tell Them Again”.

To win, any Remain campaign would have to rely not just on the dire warnings of economic chaos of leaving. 

It would have to make an emotional connection that persuaded voters that the UK shares values with Europe. One route would be to highlight that with Trump in the White House, Brits can’t rely on America to promote progressive values across the world.

Young voters could prove the key. Millions of them who were too young to take part in the last referendum would get a say for the first time. If Corbyn could enthuse his Left base too, it would be game-on.

Is there another way the UK can stop Brexit?

Apart from a referendum, the only other way to halt Brexit is to hold a general election. 

This would require Labour to campaign to stay in the EU. ‘Remain and reform’ has been a phrase used by Corbyn in recent weeks.

The danger would be the loss of industrial heartlands voters, but the upside would be a chance to mop-up votes of moderate conservatives who would hold their nose at the idea of a left-led government in order to stop the ‘disaster’ of Brexit.

A general election may be the best way out of parliament’s deadlock too, changing the arithmetic so one party can get a majority.

After May’s huge defeat this week, EU chief Donald Tusk tweeted: “If a deal is impossible, and no one wants no deal, then who will finally have the courage to say what the only positive solution is?” 

The hint was clear: the positive solution is to stay in the EU after all. Come back, and all is forgiven. It’s an idea that seemed impossible two years ago. It may, just may, be possible now.