Why Boris Johnson could back a new Brexit referendum as prime minister

boris johnsonReuters

  • Boris Johnson is the breakaway favourite to replace Theresa May as prime minister, given his popularity among Conservative party members.
  • While the former foreign secretary is vocally opposed to holding a second Brexit referendum, some of his colleagues believe a Brexiteer prime minister could nonetheless be forced to hold one.
  • The choice could be between that and a general election, with the Tories trailing Labour by a significant distance in the polls.

LONDON - The frontrunner to replace Theresa May could ultimately be forced to back a second referendum on Brexit if he does become prime minister, a growing number of Conservative MPs believe.

Leadership rivals of Johnson have been briefing that Johnson's nascent campaign team, led by former Tory MP James Wharton, have "war-gamed" the prospect of holding a second referendum which gives voters the choice between remain, a form of "managed" no deal, and possibly a third option of a negotiated exit, either based on the so-called 'Malthouse Compromise' or resembling Theresa May's existing deal.

Johnson has the support of 39% of Tory members, who get the final say in electing a new party leader, with second-placed Dominic Raab trailing on just 13%, according to a YouGov survey last week. That popularity is based largely on his strong Brexit credentials: He resigned as foreign secretary to oppose Theresa May's Withdrawal Agreement with the EU on the grounds it was too soft and is ready to back leaving with no deal if Brussels does not grant the UK concessions over the Irish border.

However, there appears to be growing confidence within the Conservative campaign for a second referendum that the leader who replaces Theresa May - whether Johnson or another Brexiteer - will move towards backing a second referendum because they will be left with little other choice.

The logic goes that a newly-installed Brexiteer PM will arrive in Downing Street and promise to extract concessions from Brussels, not least removing the contentious Irish backstop from Theresa May's withdrawal agreement.

When the EU refuses to grant such concessions, as its negotiators have repeatedly pledged to do, the new prime minister will come out in favour of a no-deal exit. Forced to seek a mandate to leave the EU with no deal in order to push it through parliament, a general election would be the obvious answer, but with the Tories trailing Labour by a significant margin in the polls - as they are currently - a referendum might be more appealing, and more survivable.

"A referendum is appealing as a bucket of sick. But it's more appealing than leaving without a deal."

A second referendum would require the successful passage of a parliamentary bill, just as the first in 2016 did. But the plan could command a majority in parliament because both Remainers and some Leavers would support it.

There is also the question of what question, or questions, would be on the ballot paper. Would it be a three-way choice between a deal, no deal, and remain? Or would it be between no deal and Remain? Would the Electoral Commission allow no deal on the ballot paper or would its wording need to reformulated?

A referendum may be inevitable

Boris JohnsonGetty

While most Tory MPs remain implacably opposed to the prospect of a second referendum, there is also a growing acceptance among some that such an outcome might be inevitable.

Johnson, for his part, remains vocally opposed to a second referendum, claiming earlier this month that advocates for a new vote were bolstering support for another independence vote in Scotland.

"I say to all those now campaigning for a second EU referendum in the UK - I mean Tony Blair, Alastair Campbell, and I am afraid not only John Major but even some cabinet ministers have canvassed the idea - they should know better," he said.

"They are giving aid and succour to those who would stage another independence vote in Scotland."

However, when presented with a binary choice between a second referendum and a general election - some MPs believe he could decide that the former is more appealing.

And a growing number of moderate colleagues believe such an outcome may be the only way to avoid a certain no-deal outcome.

A regular meeting on Monday evening of Conservative MPs who support a People's Vote was their "best-attended yet," according to one attendant, the room stuffed with colleagues who are not enthusiastic about such an outcome but who accept that it is increasingly likely.

One MP who "reluctantly" supports a second vote said: "A referendum is appealing as a bucket of sick. But it's more appealing than leaving without a deal."

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