Lesley Riddoch: Can SNP save the UK from Brexit?

EasyJet CEO Carolyn McCall has already threatened to move her company's HQ from Luton to a European city. Picture: AFP/Getty Images
EasyJet CEO Carolyn McCall has already threatened to move her company's HQ from Luton to a European city. Picture: AFP/Getty Images
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Could an alliance with a post-Corbyn Labour Party on a ‘Rejoin Europe’ ticket deliver the goods in the event of an autumn general election? asks Lesley Riddoch

Are we really Brexiting? On the face of it, of course we are – even if politicians and civil servants are approaching the prospect with increasingly faint hearts and gritted teeth.

The people have spoken – end of. The “complication” of Scotland and Northern Ireland voting to Remain has been dismissed and the wishes of three million petitioners calling for a second European referendum have been ignored. The Brexit result has swiftly become the highest-ranking face card in the jaunty, high-stakes game that is British politics, trumping every other expression of democratic intent.

And yet the problem remains. If the weeks and months ahead reveal the Brexit vote to have been a catastrophically bad decision, made on the basis of false promises by “leaders” who have since resigned (or like Michael “backstabber” Gove look set to be dumped), will MPs still wave the jolly ship Britannia on her way even though most believe Niagara lurks round the next bend? There is a very serious decision to be made – and since the Euroref was advisory not compulsory, MPs cannot pretend there is no choice in the matter.

It’s not a pretty choice, or an easy one. But legislation to kickstart Brexit will sooner or later hit the floor of the Commons where there is not a majority for Brexit. Those MPs were also elected in an expression of Britain’s democratic will.

Are they now to become mere puppets, rubber-stamping a course with which a clear majority profoundly disagrees? Are voters allowed to change their minds? Scots have already been through that argument and few would now argue with the Scottish Government’s contention that a “significant and material change in circumstances” can justify a re-run.

Indeed even Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson says the UK government should not veto such a move – though she will still argue against it. So, one week after the Brexit vote, has there been a similarly “significant and material change in circumstances” across the UK?

Not yet. But that will change. A recent Ipos Mori BBC poll suggests more than a third of voters don’t think the UK will leave the EU despite the referendum result. Some 48 per cent think there should be a general election before Britain starts Brexit negotiations and though most folk sampled wouldn’t change their vote, a switch was twice as likely amongst Leave supporters. Meantime the heavyweights have been weighing in.

US Secretary of State John Kerry has suggested the UK might not follow through with the decision to leave and Tony Blair says we should “keep our options open” – though his opinion may be worthless after publication of the Chilcot Report.

Still, it’s clear serious discussion about the timing and manner of Britain’s EU departure has not yet begun thanks to the chaos gripping Westminster. Tory leadership favourite Theresa May has promised no second referendum or general election if she becomes party leader – but she also has no plans to trigger an Article 50 exit until 2017 at the earliest. There’s a touch of the “never, never” about that – a vagueness that will horrify business big and small and will certainly be exploited by hard-line Leave campaigner and leadership rival Andrea Leadsom.

Experts agree a second referendum is “constitutionally possible but politically unthinkable”. Few politicians want to become the PM who finally pushes the “nuclear” exit button, but still fewer want to be captured forever in the public imagination as the politician who subverted the democratic will of the British electorate.

It’s also true that the scale of the English leave vote has laid bare profound disillusionment with the whole political process. How much angrier will those voters become if their clearly expressed will is ignored by the metropolitan, well-heeled, chattering-class elite?

And yet, we know leaving the EU will clog Westminster for almost a decade, require key bits of legislation like the Scotland Act to be redrafted, deter almost all inward investment, prompt existing companies (Carolyn McCall’s EasyJet may well be just one of many) and start-up ventures to relocate elsewhere (Dublin looks set to clean up), and – perhaps most damaging– leave small and medium-sized businesses tendering for contracts without the faintest idea about the shape of the immediate future.

Over the summer, predictions of job losses by the likes of George Osborne will be translated into very tangible closures and redundancies. Leave voters will notice a drop in the value of the pound on holiday – and while it’s true that a weaker pound should mean stronger exports, for how long?

Could all of this prompt calls for an autumn general election in which one party campaigns to renegotiate terms and (effectively) take Britain back into Europe?

It’s possible – but which mainstream UK party would line up to do that? A Tory party led by Europhobic Theresa May or a Labour Party still led by Euro-doubter Jeremy Corbyn? The Liberal Democrats are long-standing Europhiles but their credibility was destroyed by the Con-Dem coalition, and the Greens cannot yet provide a rallying point for mainstream voters.

Ironically, Nicola Sturgeon has provided the strongest leadership over Europe – yet she won’t solve a constitutional crisis which might yet become a catalyst for Indyref2. And of course the SNP doesn’t stand in seats outside Scotland. But they might pledge support for a Labour government standing on a “Rejoin Europe” ticket – if Labour survives the next few weeks.

Two things are for sure. The normal rules of democracy have been bent to breaking point and the mainstream proponents of the Brexit vote are already political toast.

The only question is whether MPs are compelled to conduct business as usual in this volatile and highly unusual situation.Is any political leader brave enough to call for a general election and help Britain walk away from the brink of chaos?