Nigel Farage met Michel Barnier on Monday and is now calling, inexplicably, for a second EU referendum. He wants to rerun the whole thing. Well, I too have just got back from Brussels and no doubt Barnier said the same things to me and my three colleagues as he did to Nigel. That being the case, I think Nigel has lost the plot.
I met Barnier on Wednesday along with Digby Jones, John Longworth and John Mills, all experienced and talented businesspeople with a deep understanding of the issues. We had a long discussion with Barnier, put our case for the EU accepting Brexit gracefully and acting with positivity in the up-coming trade negotiations. We all want the same thing: a good deal for both the EU and the UK. While Barnier and I will never agree, he put his case respectfully and in detail.
Nigel came out of his meeting with Barnier disillusioned. We came out of ours pessimistic that a deal could be reached. But my first thought wasn’t to rerun the whole EU referendum and ask the British people the same question all over again. My first thought when I stepped out of the room was: we need to face facts, and fast. The chances of securing a good deal for the UK on trade and services is next to impossible. Barnier made that quite clear. We are poles apart and I just can’t see that gap closing.
Nigel Farage is absolutely wrong to call for an another referendum. But even if he genuinely believes we need another referendum to prove to the EU that the British people are serious about leaving, do we really want to do it? Hold another EU referendum? Do we really want to keep checking what people think now, today, or three months or six months – or maybe, why not follow Ireland’s lead, and keep asking the question until Remainers get the answer they want?
And there’s the rub. By calling for another EU referendum Nigel is doing the ultra-Remainer's dirty work for them. They want another EU referendum desperately. They’ll do almost anything to get it too. We’ve already seen a parade of high-profile remain supports stream through the EU Parliament for meetings with Barnier.
On top of that we’ve had 18 months of moaning and scaremongering; increasingly vitriolic clashes between politicians within the same party, businesses at their wit’s end due to uncertainty and a general public who are frustrated and confused at political in-fighting and the snail’s-pace of progress. Are we going to put ourselves through another 12-24 months of that? Are we mad?
Nigel is wrong for a number of very obvious reasons. First, we’ve already had a vote – a re-run would be utterly undemocratic. Secondly, it would create further uncertainty; our businesses need a quick, clean deal. And, thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, it would be giving ground to the Remainers and the ‘ABC clan’ (Adonis, Blair and Clegg). I'm sure that Leave would win a referendum again, but it's the principle that matters.
Nigel also said that one of the reasons for reconsidering his view was the business delegation I led to meet with Barnier. He said we left pessimistic. We did, but that doesn't mean we should have another referendum – the third after those in 1975 and 2016. Instead, it means that a no-deal scenario is more likely than we originally thought, so the Government should make plans for one, and fast.
First the government must appoint a Minister for No Deal; a person with an in-depth understanding of the business ramifications who can marshal the government departments. At the same time every department must be charged with producing a plan for their policy area that gives us a roadmap. The civil service is more than capable of doing this – they do it before every general election; plan for each main party taking control. They have the expertise they just need instructing – and up to now that has not happened.
We must prepare to leave the EU on WTO terms and double down on signing free-trade deals with the rest of the world; get out there with renewed vigour and purpose. A re-run of the referendum would be a distraction – and a disaster.
Steven Woolfe is an independent MEP.