For those who believe Brexit is a terrible mistake that could be undone, Prime Minister Theresa May’s decision to call a snap election offered a moment of hope followed by a hard dose of reality.
After her announcement, Stephen Dorrell, chairman of the European Movement, emailed supporters to say “it is not too late to change our minds.” That might involve voting May out of power and holding a second referendum, a scenario that even the most optimistic europhiles see as politically implausible.
“If you held a rerun of the referendum
tomorrow, you’d get the same result,” said James McGrory, director of Open Britain, the campaign for keeping the U.K. close to the European Union.
The realization that Brexit is irreversible is dawning on the phalanx of the population distraught to part ways with a long-time trade companion of more than four decades. Less than a year after the shock decision, the die-hards among the 16 million Britons, or 48 percent of voters, have few options. At best, they can try to soften a hard Brexit landing.
McGrory sees the election as an opportunity instead to shift the balance of parliament, so as to increase the pressure on May to pull back. She wants to leave the single market and put control of borders and budget ahead of trade. Perhaps, the argument goes, there is scope to contain some of that.
“It’s about limiting the number of members of parliament who favor a hard form of Brexit and maximizing the chances of those who don’t to hold their seats,” he said.
The one party that wants to go down this path is the Liberal Democrats. The most pro-European of Britain’s national parties suffered a near wipe-out in the 2015 election and has spent the last year arguing that the results of May’s Brexit negotiations should be put to another plebiscite.
“The real issue is can the Liberal Democrats prevent what Theresa May thinks and hopes is a coronation for her,” party leader Tim Farron told Bloomberg Television. “If it is a coronation then that means it’s a blank check for Theresa May to deliver the hardest Brexit.”
The first big poll carried out since May called an election give her reason to be confident. Tories are seen winning 48 percent of the votes, with Labour trailing with 24 percent and Liberal Democrats at 12 percent, according to a YouGov survey of voting intentions reported by The Times. No margin of error was given.
The Liberal Democrats’ dream is to repeat the achievement of the Scottish National Party in 2015. After losing an independence referendum the previous year, it picked up all of the votes of the losing side, and used them to win 56 out of 59 seats in the election. On this logic, the people who voted to stay in the EU ought to be enough to win almost any parliamentary seat.
The electoral districts they have their eyes on are those where the current representative backs leaving the EU, but voters wanted to stay. One Lib Dem lawmaker mentioned Esher, southeast London, the seat of leading “Leave” campaigner Dominic Raab.
That sounds ambitious: Raab took 63 percent of the vote in 2015, though since then he’s faced complaints from his constituents. He described himself on Wednesday as “confident, but not for a second complacent.”
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The other aim is to recoup the seats they lost in 2015. In Twickenham, southwest London, the former Business Secretary Vince Cable was ousted by a margin of 2,000 votes. He announced on Wednesday he’d be running to take the seat back and while the current lawmaker opposed Brexit, that may not be enough to save her.
“Brexit gives the Lib Dems an opportunity to reassert their relevance,” said Andrew Russell, author of “Neither Left Nor Right?” a history of the party. “There’s an awful lot of people voted to remain who now see they’re being ignored. The Lib Dems are firmly back in the center ground. That’s all to the good. The bad news is that they’re way behind in some of those seats.”
Russell thought the party was looking at ending up with around 20 seats, up from their current nine, rather than the more than 50 they had until 2015.
Brexit offers no such hope to Labour, though. Its position has been muddled, with a leader who has historically opposed EU membership yet campaigned for it in 2016. The party also has to find a pitch that reaches those of its voters who backed Brexit, as well as those who oppose it.
Tony Blair, the former Labour prime minister who has placed himself at the head of those trying to keep Britain in the EU, urged voters to back any candidate that opposes Brexit.
“We desperately need representatives who will at least keep an open mind,” he wrote this week. “This requires the electorate in every constituency to know where the candidates stand; and the mobilisation of the thousands in each constituency to make it clear that for them this issue counts when it comes to their vote.”
Whether a groundswell of support behind a common cause gains momentum, remains to be seen. For now, at least, May is on track to have Brexit her way.