'Regrexit' talks grow - but is any sort of rethink even possible?
Of all people, it’s Kelvin MacKenzie who’s gone public about having second thoughts. Who’d have thought it?
The man who gave the world “Up Yours Delors” is feeling a little chilly in the foot department. But then he is also the man who gave birth to the concept to the ‘reverse ferret’.
Among MacKenzie’s ’10 reasons for voting leave’ were “Getting rid of Scotland” and “being able to vote against a policy you don’t like”.
Well, sooner than expected, he’s found a policy he doesn’t like, and it’s called Brexit. But he may find it hard, now, to vote against it. Oh what irony.
Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt was always a committed Remainer, but it’s significant none-the-less that he’s the first senior Tory to utter the words “second referendum” without immediately ruling them out.
It may all be part of an undeclared bid for the Remain vote in the leadership election, but he’s put the issue on the table.
Raising a question, though, and putting it forward a practical proposal are not the same, and it’s important that the debate stays in the realms of what is possible.
Let’s start at the simplest option: call a second referendum in a matter of months on the basis that the decision is so serious and so irrevocable that it’s important the check that June 23rd wasn’t a protest vote that got out of hand.
Practical? Certainly. Politically possible? Unlikely, unless things deteriorate very fast.
There will be those who think ‘Thank Goodness’, but they may be overwhelmed by those shouting ‘Betrayal of Democracy’.
And bear in mind that the Remain camp, under this scenario, would be arguing for a worse deal that existed on June 23rd: the concessions that David Cameron won in February were explicitly tied to a ‘Remain’ vote in June. They no longer exist.
Which is, I suspect, why Mr Hunt has framed his thoughts around a second referendum after talks with Brussels that have laid out a new plan for the future relationship with the EU.
He doesn’t say what the question would be: new plan versus existing arrangements? New plan versus total exit? But there is a more pressing problem: the EU has set its face resolutely against going down this path.
I have rarely known the leaders to be more united than they are in rejecting any talks, formal or informal, before Article 50 has been triggered and exit negotiations begin.
The EU will not do a deal that gives us ‘Norway (plus)’, in other words access to the single market with some restrictions on free movement.
Frankly, I think it unlikely that they will even do a deal that gives us just ‘Norway’, because it is an option that may seem too attractive to others tempted to follow suit.
Some in the Conservative party, notably Boris Johnson, do not want to accept the link between Single Market Access and Freedom of Movement, but those pesky foreigners seem to be insisting on it.
Nigel Farage, at least, does seem to have accepted Europe is serious about this, as he rejected single market membership in the European Parliament this morning.
So if there is nothing to vote on before Article 50 is triggered, what about a vote after that process gets underway, but before it is completed. This option is littered with problems.
First, is Article 50 reversible? Accepted wisdom has been that it is, but some very serious legal opinion suggests that - as the Article doesn’t explicitly rule it, it could be done.
Sir David Edward, a former judge on the European Court of Justice no less, told the House of Lords earlier this year: “It is absolutely clear that you cannot be forced to go through with it (Act 50) if you do not want to: for example, if there is a change of Government”. But there is a catch.
The others would have to agree. They probably would - they genuinely want Britain to stay - but on what terms?
Here’s Sir David Edward again: “I am saying that they might say, “We will let you change your mind, but there will be no more opt-outs”.
So it would be a referendum on whether to accept the terms on offer (presumably pretty poor or we wouldn’t be asking the question), or to return to full membership but short of our opt-outs on Schengen, parts of the Law and Justice rules and maybe, crucially, Euro membership. Not to mention our rebate. None of this sounds very appealing.
What some in Westminster don’t seem to have accepted yet is the absolutely priority in the chancelleries of Europe that this referendum is not seen to ‘succeed’.
That doesn’t mean punishing Britain. It means not letting it appear that the UK has won something that is not available to the other 27.
Angel Merkel sees the greatest threat to the European project being a series of referendums in which country after country tries to force its demands on the rest by claiming the democratic mandate of a referendum.
It happened when the Swiss people voted to restrict freedom of movement in order to reduce immigration.
They were immediately told that would mean loss of access to the single market.
The Government in Berne have (to date) done nothing to implement any change.
It happened last summer when the Greeks voted (they thought) for debt relief, with the threat of bringing down the Eurozone if they didn’t get it. Merkel gave them nothing.
In fact the terms for the third bailout got tougher, and the Syriza Government in Athens had to accept them.
There is a referendum coming up in Hungary on unilateral changes to EU rules on refugees. And on and on it goes.
Berlin is convinced that to give way once would be to open the floodgates, and to begin a process that could easily down the Union.
This is why there is a stoney-faced refusal to even talk ahead of Article 50, let alone give anything away.
In this context it is very hard to see where or how a second referendum could fit.
But expect to hear more talk about some sort of re-vote, via plebiscite or General Election, in the weeks ahead.