A second referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU is likely, believes the Food and Drink Federation’s (FDF’s) chief executive Ian Wright. It’s a personal view and not that of the FDF, he is at pains to stress. But, given the failure of government to come up with a practical way forward; movement in public opinion since the referendum in 2016; and mounting fears of a hard Brexit, he believes it is the most likely scenario.
Wright isn’t shy about his long personal and close connections to the Liberal Democrats. So, it might not be surprising that he supports that party’s call for a second referendum. What is more surprising is that he now believes it will happen – something he didn’t think up to just a few weeks ago.
“I don’t think there is a majority in the House of Commons for any of the solutions currently on offer … and I don’t think there is a majority for a no-deal Brexit,” said Wright. He doesn’t think either a deal based on much-derided Chequers’ proposals or that negotiated by Canada would be acceptable to MPs. Politicians were beginning to understand the chaos that would ensue with no deal and none of them are going to vote for that, he added.
Wright was speaking to an evening meeting of the Chartered Institute of Marketing Food, Drink and Agriculture group last Wednesday (26 September) hot foot from attending the Labour Conference in Liverpool, at which Shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer publicly announced to delegates that a second referendum could be on the cards if a deal acceptable to Labour was not agreed by Theresa May’s government.
“I actually think there is going to be a second referendum. I have changed my mind on this,” said Wright. “I don’t quite know how we get there. I think what Keir Starmer said yesterday was hugely significant. His biggest round of applause was when he said remain would be on the ballot paper.
“In the end, I think there will be a second referendum with do deal, clean break, whatever you call it and remain.”
The original Brexit referendum had been “a catastrophic failure of British politics”, said Wright. “People were lied to on both sides: they were treated with contempt.
“Nevertheless, no rational person faced with the evidence would have made the choice that the British people did. I understand the reasons it was made … I get the sense of alienation.” However, he argued that membership of the EU was not the place to air those concerns, which should be via a general election. “They should not be reposed on a trading relationship that is critical to our nation’s future,” he argued.
Whether a second referendum actually does take place is another matter. Even if it does, there is no guarantee the result would be different to that of 23 June 2016.
And what if it did overturn the decision to leave? It could be so divisive for our country that it leads to widespread public unrest, with one half of the nation at war with the other. It would certainly take cool leadership to avert this dangerous possibility.
It is well known that many in the Labour Party fear a second referendum would antagonise voters in its northern heartlands who voted in favour of leaving because they didn’t feel they had any stake in UK society and believed that anything was better than what they currently had. The danger is a second referendum – especially if it overturns the original decision – could cause them to feel even more alienated.
“It is going to take somebody of genius to put this country back together again,” said Wright. “And if there is a second referendum, it does run the risk of being hugely divisive. But the economic consequences of leaving are so bad for the people who voted in favour of leave that I’m afraid we can’t let them do it to themselves. It’s a failure of political leadership.”
As the Conservatives gather in Birmingham for their annual conference, it will be interesting to see whether the voices supporting a second referendum in the Tory Party gather momentum. After all, back in July former Tory minister Justine Greening called for a second referendum in order to avert parliamentary deadlock on Brexit. Given that a negotiated agreement seems even farther away today, others in her party could well join her.
Wright suggested Prime Minster Theresa May was likely to discover over the coming weeks and months the true impact that a hard Brexit would have, causing gridlock at ports and food shortages.
“Brexit is the biggest threat to the food and drink industry and that was laid bare in several technical notices that were issued on Monday [24 September] that talk of a no-deal Brexit,” said Wright. “A no-deal Brexit means that when we leave [on 29 March 2019] the EU almost immediately starts to treat us like a third country outside the single market and subject to all the rules that apply.”
These rules will include customs and phytosanitary checks; changes to drivers’ licences and passports – all of which will cause severe delays and disruption for lorries at ports such as Dover and Calais, warned Wright.
“This is a massive, massive issue,” he claimed. “So we have a real problem in this country about no deal and that’s why I don’t think there will be no deal.”