When Vladimir Putin tells you that you are handling a difficult democratic situation correctly you know it is time to have second thoughts.
The increasingly authoritarian Russian president has declared that British Prime Minister Theresa May is doing the right thing by rejecting calls for a new referendum to break the UK’s impasse over leaving the European Union.
Having secured his own fourth term as president this year after banning his main opponent from running, after earlier orchestrating a discredited 95.5 percent referendum vote to back his armed takeover of Crimea, Putin insisted that May must “fulfil the will of the people” as expressed in a 2016 UK referendum that voted by 51.8 percent to leave the EU.
“Someone disliked the (2016) result, so repeat it over and over? Is this democracy? What then would be the point of the referendum in the first place?”, Putin asked in a televised press conference. Weakening the EU is a long-standing goal of Putin, whose support for Brexit is fiercely opposed by every European leader.
The only Western leader who shares Putin’s support for Brexit is Donald Trump, who says it was a “smart” decision by British voters because he believes the EU is dominated by Germany.
Former UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband, a member of the “People’s Vote” campaign for a new referendum, said the Russian leader’s views were no surprise, accusing him of having secretly interfered in the Brexit campaign along with other Western elections.
“Vladimir Putin’s contempt for, or fear of, a People’s Vote will not shock anybody,” Miliband said.
The legitimacy of a second vote is fast becoming the dominant question in British politics given the impasse that Brexit has reached after May was forced to concede that she does not have the support of MPs for the withdrawal deal she has spent two years negotiating with Brussels.
Even many Brexit supporters have said they would prefer to remain in the EU rather than leave under May’s deal because they see it is as a “half-way house” that fails to deliver their optimistic hopes of retaining many benefits of EU membership and gaining new freedoms as a non-member.
Legislation has already been passed for Britain to leave the EU on March 29, so if May refuses to delay that departure date and fails to sell her withdrawal deal to Parliament the country is on track for an abrupt “no deal” Brexit that would maximise the economic dislocation of ending four decades of shared regulations and trading arrangements.
A new referendum
With no parliamentary majority in sight for May’s deal, a “no deal” Brexit or remaining in the EU, the Work and Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd this week became the first Cabinet member to say the country may have to hold a new referendum.
“Parliament has to reach a majority on how it’s going to leave the EU,” she said.
“If it fails to do so then I can see the argument for taking it back to the people again, much as it would distress many of my colleagues.
“I don’t want a people’s vote, or a referendum in general, but if parliament absolutely failed to reach a consensus, I could see there would be a plausible argument for it.”
Former Labour leadership contender Owen Smith called Rudd’s statement “a massive moment” for the campaign for a referendum, predicting “she won’t be the last” Cabinet Secretary to take that position.
Brexit supporters say that holding a second vote would be a breach of trust with the 2016 voters, with Trade Secretary Liam Fox warning that if the public voted now to cancel Brexit he would immediately demand “best of three.”
Backers of a new vote argue that it would not be a re-run of the 2016 referendum because that vote was about the general concept of leaving the EU without voters knowing what sort of Brexit it would mean but a new ballot could consider the specific departure package that May has agreed with the EU.
And while the question would be different, the electorate has also changed because of the disproportionate number of Brexit supporters who have died since the mid-2016 vote, in which elderly voters heavily backed Brexit while the young voted strongly to stay in the EU.
Peter Kellner, the former head of the pollster YouGov, has calculated that demographic turnover means the UK will switch from a pro-Brexit to an anti-Brexit country on January 19, just four days after May is expected to try again to win House of Commons approval for her departure deal. Kellner, who backs a new referendum, says January 19 will be “Crossover Day”.
“If not a single voter in the referendum two years ago changes their mind, enough mainly Leave voters will have died, and enough mainly Remain voters will have reached voting age, to wipe out the Leave majority achieved in June 2016,” he said.
YouGov research showed that “demographic factors alone are causing the Leave majority to shrink by around 1,350 per day, or almost half a million a year.”
“Crossover Day, when Remain moves into the lead, will be January 19. By March 29, the day the UK is due to leave the EU, the Remain majority will be almost 100,000 – again, assuming that nobody who voted two years ago has changed their mind.”
In reality the Remain majority would be even larger, he said, because polling suggested that young people would increase their below-average turnout of 2016 now that the huge impact of Brexit had become clearer.
Recent polls have also suggested that a majority of people would now vote to Remain, despite the fact that neither the Conservative PM nor Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has advocated cancelling Brexit.
The largest ever independent Brexit opinion poll interviewed 20,000 people for Channel Four from October 22 to November 2 and found that even before May had revealed her unpopular withdrawal deal support for Remain had risen to 54 percent.
More recently a YouGov poll of 5,043 people on December 14 found 45 percent support for Remain and only 31 percent support for May’s deal, and when people were asked “In hindsight, do you think Britain was right or wrong to vote to leave the EU?” 47 percent said it had been wrong and 41 percent said it had been right.
Most Labour MPs and party members back Remain and if Corbyn did the same support for Remain would be likely to swell dramatically. Much would also depend on the wording of a referendum poll and the PM’s attitude but supporters of a referendum hope that the likely rejection of her deal by MPs on January 15 will force her to throw responsibility for the issue back to the public.