Divided UK braces for once-in-a-lifetime Brexit vote

Divided UK braces for once-in-a-lifetime Brexit vote

Pro-EU anti-Brexit demonstrators wave Union and EU flag outside the Houses of Parliament in central London on Dec 13, 2017 as MPs debate proposed an amendment to the EU Withdrawal Bill. (AFP file photo)
Pro-EU anti-Brexit demonstrators wave Union and EU flag outside the Houses of Parliament in central London on Dec 13, 2017 as MPs debate proposed an amendment to the EU Withdrawal Bill. (AFP file photo)

LONDON: As British MPs prepare for a historic vote on the future of Brexit, the country is back on a campaign footing and the bitter divisions of the 2016 referendum have re-surfaced.

Second referendum campaigners are setting up stalls at Christmas markets nationwide, while hardline Brexiteers are pushing their message of a clean break on tours of Britain.

"It really does feel like 2016 all over again," said Politico's Jack Blanchard, reacting to the daily news diet of dire economic forecasts and heated political debates.

UK Prime Minister Theresa May lost three key votes on a day of drama in the House of Commons on Tuesday, highlighting the weakness of her position as she tries to ratify the deal she’s struck with the European Union.

May lost two House of Commons votes forcing her to publish secret government legal advice on her Brexit deal. After being found in contempt of Parliament -- an unprecedented charge against a government -- May promised she would release the legal file Wednesday.

The premier then lost a third big vote that could prove even more significant: it gives Parliament the power to shape the final Brexit settlement if, as expected, May fails to get her deal approved in the Commons in the Dec 11 vote.  

Different sides in the debate are urging people to put pressure on their MPs ahead of the vote, hoping their vision of Britain's future will win the day.

Polls indicate that some Britons -- a minority -- do support Prime Minister Theresa May's compromise deal with Brussels, hoping to put an end to a tortuous debate.

But hardliners instead want a cleaner break to escape the "tentacles" of Europe once and for all, while moderates are campaigning for a deal that binds Britain closer to Europe.

Despite May's repeated denials, another group of Britons is hoping that the confusion created if and when MPs reject May's deal will ultimately lead to a second referendum.

The impression for now is that all options are up for grabs.

"No one's getting more reconciled," said Tom Clarkson, research director at the consultancy BritainThinks.

"Brexit is a massive division," Clarkson said, pointing out that focus groups had revealed family arguments, friendship breakdowns and "an overall mood of pessimism".

- 'Bored of Brexit' -

A poll by Survation last week of 1,030 people found that the Brexit deal was less popular (37%) than remaining in the EU (46%).

But 41% of the same respondents said they wanted their MP to vote in favour of the deal compared to 38% who said they should oppose it.

"There is a difference between what the public want conceptually and what they think should happen now, relative to the current political situation," said Survation chief executive Damian Lyons Lowe.

The pollster said this contradiction created "an impasse that many believe can only be bridged by returning to the polls in another referendum or election".

All options appear to be up for grabs

But even advocates of holding another vote admit that the result could be similar to the 52-48 split in 2016.

Starting its case for MPs to approve the deal, the government has argued that most people simply want Brexit to happen and for the country to move on.

Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt used the term "BOBs" to describe constituents who are "bored of Brexit".

"They want us to get on with it and deliver Brexit," he said.

The trouble is there are still deep rifts over what kind of Brexit there should be or if there should be Brexit at all.

- 'Brexit advent' -

"It beggars belief that two and a half years after the referendum, and with just months to go before the Article 50 process comes to an end, we are still no nearer to knowing what sort of future we are trying to achieve," wrote Jeremy Warner, a columnist for Daily Telegraph.

The public debate is dominated by hardliners on both sides, creating "a volatile and unpredictable environment," researchers at King's College London wrote in a recent study.

With the government constantly on the brink of collapse, the risk of a no-deal Brexit looming and the prospect of a second referendum in the air, many Britons would agree.

Guardian columnist Marina Hyde wrote: "Get ready for Brexit advent, where a new political hellscape opens every day".

Do you like the content of this article?

Police to charge protest leaders with lese majeste

Police have summoned seven leaders of anti-government protests to face charges of lese majeste over comments made at demonstrations that demanded reforms to the monarchy, a police source and a rights group said on Tuesday.


Local vaccine production

Local Covid-19 vaccine production should start in the middle of next year and a decision will be made next month on the first recipient groups, health authorities said on Tuesday.


Arkhom urges external loan sources

The Public Debt Management Office (PDMO) has been asked to consider seeking external loans to diversify lending sources amid higher demand from the private sector amid the Covid-19 crisis, says the Finance Ministry.