Iain Mansfield is a former senior civil servant, winner of the Institute of Economic Affairs Brexit prize and a Conservative council candidate. He writes in a personal capacity.
In 2016, the constituency of Welwyn Hatfield voted 52:48 in favour of Leave, mirroring the national result result. Over the last few weeks I’ve spoken to hundreds of voters on the doorstep whilst campaigning to be elected to the Borough Council. Though we’re running a local campaign, focused on local issues, readers will not be surprised to hear that Brexit comes up frequently.
The level of frustration and anger is higher now than I’ve ever seen it before. Many voters on both sides are sick of politicians, angry at Parliament and simply want Brexit to be over with, one way or the other. On the Leave side, people feel angry, frustrated and betrayed at the refusal of the political classes to honour a democratic vote. Time and again I’ve been told by someone that they will never vote again.
I should say up-front that I’m firmly opposed to the idea of a second referendum. To make people vote again before the decision of the first has been implemented would be a travesty of democracy and do serious damage to the social contract of our society. A narrow victory (for either side) would resolve nothing; there is also no reason to believe that Remainers who do not respect the result of the first referendum would respect the result of a second. But based on the conversations I’ve had on the doorstep, I believe that if a second referendum were to be held it would be folly for either side to count on victory.
The case for a Leave win
In a fair referendum – either a straight choice between No Deal and Remain, or a preference vote between Remain, May’s deal and No Deal – there are good reasons to believe Leave would win. The majority of recent polls place support for the two sides at a very similar level to before the last referendum. Many people forget that until the start of purdah, after which Remain was unable to deploy the full civil service machine in its service, Leave consistently lagged, often by some margin. In recent votes, including the 2017 General Election, 2016 Brexit referendum, 2016 US election, and 2014 Scottish independence referendum, the polls have shifted by more than the amount required to grant Leave a win.
As before, Leave will be able to deploy compelling arguments, including the need to Take Back Control. The narrative of betrayal is both powerful and true: polls have shown that the public rightly believe that Brexit has been blocked by Remain supporters in Parliament. Others argue convincingly that voters tend to punish those who make them vote twice, pointing to historical events such as the 1997 Winchester by-election. Based on my doorstep conversations, I can well believe that an effective campaign could mobilise these sentiments in support of a Leave victory.
Finally, as a committed Brexiteer, I believe that Leave has an inbuilt advantage as the most desirable option. In 2016, despite being outspent by more than 3:2, Leave triumphed over a coalition of all three major political parties, big business, the civil service machine, academia, the NGO community and international leaders from Obama to Lagarde. We did it once; we can do it again.
The case for a Remain win
Yet there are also strong arguments that Remain would win. They are, after all, currently ahead in the polls. The demographic shift has been overstated but is nonetheless real and potentially worth 1-3 percentage points – enough to clinch victory. A more serious problem, based on my own doorstep conversations, is voter disengagement. An estimated three million people voted for the first time in 2016, most of them for Leave. If they stay home because of a belief that voting is pointless, this could swing the result to Remain.
The grassroots campaign for Remain will begin in a much stronger place than in 2016. While Leave largely ceased campaigning after the referendum, wrongly believing that the result would be honoured, Remain has effectively been campaigning solidly for three years and has amassed a core of committed supporters, as demonstrated by the recent petition to revoke Article 50. Equally importantly, Remain-supporting organisations have begun to make the positive case for EU membership, an element almost wholly absent in the 2016 referendum.
The biggest reason to anticipate a Remain victory, however, is the fact that Remain dominates Parliament, the civil service and the broader establishment and so can guarantee there will not be a level playing field. Remember the £7 million taxpayer-funded mailshot arguing for Remain, the Treasury’s dodgy dossiers, or the (unsuccessful) attempt to suspend purdah rules? Expect of all of these and more in a future referendum.
Mainstream ‘People’s Vote’ advocates already argue that the ballot choice should be between Remain or May’s Deal – a choice which would all but guarantee a Remain victory – and there are existing campaigns to gerrymander the electorate by extending the franchise to 16-year olds or to the three million EU citizens living in the UK. I do not say that all of these will happen, but after Leave’s surprise victory in 2016 we can be sure that Remain will pull out all the stops to stack the deck in its favour.
As it was in 2016, the polls are so finely balanced that the result could turn on the smallest things. The question on the ballot paper; the position of Labour and Jeremy Corbyn; which groups get official designation; even a slogan or a politician’s gaffe: all could end up having a decisive effect.
Opinion polls do not, however capture the widespread feeling of anger, disgust and betrayal that comes across on the doorstep. Politicians have rarely in recent times been so disliked. In such a febrile environment, the mood could shift rapidly and decisively to one side, either to punish a political establishment seen to have betrayed them, or to simply reject Brexit itself.
Only one thing is certain: in such an environment, the campaigns on both sides will be sufficiently bitter, divisive and vitriolic to make 2016 look like a model of civility. We will all be the losers from that, whoever wins.