Theresa May. Picture: REUTERS
Theresa May. Picture: REUTERS

 Britons wanting a second referendum on EU membership were newly optimistic on Thursday as Prime Minister Theresa May admitted rejection of her floundering draft withdrawal deal could mean “no Brexit”.

Backers of a so-called “People’s Vote” were buoyed after her tentative agreement with the EU faced a furious backlash from members of her own ruling Conservatives.

May appeared to have won her cabinet’s approval for the deal during a five-hour meeting on Wednesday, but several ministers quit in protest over its terms the next morning.

In a severe blow, Brexit secretary Dominic Raab was among those to resign.

Amid the turmoil, and while continuing to insist Britain will still leave the bloc in 2019 “whatever happens”, May conceded Brexit could still be averted.

“The choice is clear … we can risk no Brexit at all,” she told legislators in parliament on Thursday, a rare admission from May that echoed similar comments she gave the previous evening.

The prime minister repeatedly reiterated that she remains determined to deliver on the 2016 referendum, but political opposition to her plan is unifying — and for some, around another poll.

“A people’s vote on the final Brexit deal, where they can choose to remain in the EU, is the only route out of this uncertainty,” said opposition Liberal Democrats leader Vince Cable.

He warned May, in a lively House of Commons debate, that legislators may instruct her to call another referendum — though it is unclear how a second vote could occur without the prime minister’s approval.

However, with speculation of a Tory leadership challenge rife, and the spectre of a snap general election looming large, proponents of a people’s vote appear emboldened.

“No deal versus no Brexit looking likeliest because her deal is a dead parrot,” former Labour government spokesman and anti-Brexit campaigner Alastair Campbell, wrote on Twitter.

“It has to go back to the people.”

Britons backed leaving the EU after four decades of membership by 52% in the 2016 referendum. But during nearly two years of fractious negotiations with the bloc, the campaign for another vote has surged, uniting pro-European politicians, activists and a variety of famous Britons.

“Back then we didn’t really know what it would entail, the ramifications of leaving the U,” former footballer and television personality Gary Lineker told a second-referendum rally in Westminster on Tuesday.

“It’s very rare in life that you get to use the benefit of hindsight,” he added.

Jo Johnson MP, the pro-European brother of former foreign secretary and Brexit cheerleader Boris Johnson, appeared on stage with Lineker after quitting May’s government last week over her plan and calling for another referendum.

“What we’ve learned over the last 24 months or so is that we’re never going to get a Brexit that matches in any way the fantastical promises,” Jo Johnson said.

He joined a host of other Conservatives who have now broken party ranks to back another vote.

Meanwhile, the main Labour opposition has said it is keeping all options on the table as many of its MPs call for the referendum.

Several recent opinions polls have shown majority support among people for another vote, as well as for staying in the EU.

Meanwhile, British bookmakers shortened the odds on a second referendum.

But political experts appear more circumspect.

“I just don’t see it happening,” said Henry Newman, director of the nonpartisan Open Europe think-tank.

“I can’t see any Conservative prime minister agreeing to it,” he added, noting backbench Tories are steadfastly opposed to another vote.

Steven Peers, a law professor at the University of Essex, said it will be hard to arrange quickly and may still lack broad enough political support.

“A second referendum is not possible unless the Labour party supports it, and even then it might not have enough votes in the House of Commons,” he said.

AFP