Can Tony Blair stop Brexit?

Speaking at an Open Britain event on Friday, former prime minister Tony Blair called for pro-EU Britons to 'rise up in defense of what we believe.' 

Toby Melville/Reuters
Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair delivers a keynote speech at a pro-Europe event in London on Friday. Mr. Blair called for Britons who wanted to remain in the EU to 'rise up in defense of what we believe,' in the hopes of changing minds and preventing Brexit.

Earlier this month, British members of Parliament (MPs) overwhelmingly voted to back Brexit, citing deference to the will of the people. But the people’s will can change, noted a former prime minister on Friday – and what happens if it does?

Speaking at an event for Open Britain, which wants Britain to maintain access to the single market, Tony Blair declared that the Brexit discussion was far from over. The task for voters who want to remain in the EU, Mr. Blair said, is to persuade Leave voters to change their minds, thus forcing a reversal on Britain’s vote to leave the European Union.

“People voted without knowledge of the true terms of Brexit. As these terms become clear, it is their right to change their mind. Our mission is to persuade them to do so,” he told the audience, reported Bloomberg.

If successful, the campaign could change MPs’ perception of the popular will and potentially reverse Brexit. For now, however, most MPs remain ambivalent, arguing that the fight has been fought and reviving the debate could actually be counterproductive.

“He’s hoping he can force … a second referendum,” said Caroline Flint, the Labour MP for Don Valley who was a minister under Blair, the Guardian reported. “That is asking for a two-year campaign to undermine the vote, when I think we need to respect the vote and work hard to get the best deal.”

Under increasing pressure from the right-wing UK Independence Party (UKIP), then-prime minister David Cameron agreed to a referendum on leaving the EU last year. Following a hard-fought campaign, ‘Leave’ narrowly won out in June, capturing 52 percent of the vote to the ’Remain’ campaign’s 48 percent. Though 75 percent of MPs opposed leaving before the referendum, directives from party leadership and concerns about upholding the democratic process have led most MPs to publicly support Brexit since.

“Rightly or wrongly, the people have spoken – and many MPs feel that if they are just ignored, there will be a real backlash from people,” Philip Cowley, a professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, wrote in an email to the Monitor earlier this month.

It’s time to accept that Brexit is happening, those MPs suggest. And for Labour, respecting the referendum has a particular importance: It may help them retain 2 seats in an upcoming by-election. Both Stoke-on-Trent Central and Copeland voted to leave the EU in June. 

Working with the government now, Remainers argue, may also give them greater leverage when the time comes to negotiate terms of exit from the EU. On top of that, relitigating Brexit could pull focus from other important issues over the next two years.

That attitude of acceptance puts many Labour MPs at odds with their former leader. Blair argued Friday that the will of the people was founded on incomplete information, and that history would judge politicians harshly if they pushed it through without trying to change people’s minds.

“Our challenge is to expose relentlessly, to show how this decision was based on imperfect knowledge, which will now become informed knowledge,” he said. “I don’t know if we can succeed. But I do know we will suffer a rancorous verdict from future generations if we do not try.”

What little data exists about the effects of Brexit remains mixed, and much depends on what the eventual deal with the EU looks like, observers say. That makes it hard to know how much of a difference Blair’s campaign to win hearts and minds could make.

Critics have blasted the effort, calling it "condescending" to suggest that Britons did not know their own minds when they went to the polls.

“I urge the British people to rise up and turn off the TV next time Tony Blair comes along with his condescending campaign,” pro-Brexit Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson told Sky News. UKIP leader Nigel Farage echoed the sentiment on Twitter.

Having Blair as the face of the campaign is also risky, some say. Though he is the most successful British politician of the past two decades, Blair is a divisive figure, his image possibly compromised by his support for the Iraq War and his business activities since leaving 10 Downing Street. 

However successful the campaign proves to be, a second referendum looks unlikely. Polling conducted for The Mile End Institute at Queen Mary University of London and The UK in a Changing Europe found that just 13 percent of MPs supported asking the people to approve the final deal.

But MPs are legally entitled to vote on the final deal, a legal opinion submitted to the House of Lords indicated Friday, according to the Independent. And if MPs hear that popular sentiment has shifted, it’s possible they would reject the deal.

Politicians "feel that they’re not legitimate anymore, in the way that they used to be,” Steven Fielding, a professor of politics at the University of Nottingham, England, previously told the Monitor, suggesting that this has made them more acquiescent to popular pressure.

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