John Major suggests second EU referendum as he attacks Theresa May's 'ultra Brexit' strategy

Posted On: 
28th February 2018

Voters should be given the chance to either accept or reject the final Brexit deal in a fresh referendum, Sir John Major has declared.

John Major has accused Brexit supporters of lying to the country.
PA Images

The former Conservative Prime Minister also called for MPs to be given a free vote on the agreement Theresa May reaches with Brussels when it is considered by the Commons in the autumn.

He set out his views in a speech in which he also accused "ultra Brexiteers" of misleading the country about the consequences of leaving the European Union.

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And he also launched a vicious attack on the Prime Minister's negotiating strategy, warning her that the "red lines" she has laid out in areas such as membership of the single market and customs union will lead to a bad deal for Britain and be hugely damaging for the economy.

Speaking in central London, Sir John said "life as we know it won’t come to an end" after Brexit.

But he pointed to forecasts which showed it will hamper the UK economy and send prices soaring in the shops.

He said: "Our nation is owed a frank assessment of what leaving Europe may mean – for now and the future. 

"I fear we will be weaker and less prosperous – as a country and as individuals.  And – although it grieves me to admit it – our divorce from Europe will diminish our international stature. Indeed, it already has."

The former Tory leader went on: "For the moment, our self-imposed “red lines” have boxed the Government into a corner.  

"They are so tilted to ultra Brexit opinion, even the Cabinet cannot agree them – and a majority in both Houses of Parliament oppose them.  If maintained in full, it will be impossible to reach a favourable trade outcome. 

"Japanese car-makers warn they could close operations in Britain unless we maintain free access to the EU.  That would be heart-breaking for many people in Sunderland or Swindon or South Wales. 

"This isn’t 'Project Fear' revisited, it is 'Project Know Your History'."

Sir John said his party gave the impression that it no longer "understood the concerns of business" when it comes to Brexit.

"The national interest must always be above the party interest, but my party should beware," he said. "It is only fear of Mr Corbyn and Mr McDonnell that prevents a haemorrhage of business support.

"Without the comprehensive trade deal the Prime Minister seeks, we risk economic divorce from the EU, and the chill embrace of a “hard” Brexit with WTO rules."

Attacking hard Brexit supporters in his own party, he said: "It is not my purpose to stir controversy, but the truth must be spoken. The ultra Brexiteers have been mistaken – wrong – in nearly all they have said or promised to the British people. 

"I could go on.  But suffice to say that every one of the Brexit promises is – to quote Henry Fielding – 'a very wholesome and comfortable doctrine to which (there is) but one objection: namely, that it is not true'.

"People should pause and reflect:  if the Brexit leaders were wrong in what they said so enthusiastically before – are they not likely to be wrong in what they say now?"

Many voters now realise they were "misled" during the EU referendum, Sir John claimed, and said they should be given a chance to "reconsider" their decision.

"It is already agreed that Parliament must pass legislation giving effect to the deal," he said. "A 'meaningful vote' has been promised. This must be a decisive vote, in which Parliament can accept or reject the final outcome;  or send the negotiators back to seek improvements;  or order a referendum."

The Tory grandee added: "By 2021, after the likely two-year transition, it will be five years since the 2016 referendum.  The electorate will have changed.  Some voters will have left us.  Many new voters will be enfranchised.  Others may have changed their mind. 

"No-one can truly know what “the will of the people” may then be.  So, let Parliament decide.  Or put the issue back to the people."

Sir John's incendiary intervention came as Theresa May prepares to deliver a major speech setting out her thinking on Brexit later this week.

And it came as the EU published a 118-page document setting out its plans to turn the final withdrawal agreement into a legal text.

The Prime Minister has already rejected its suggestion that Northern Ireland could remain in the customs union as a way of maintaining an invisible border with the Republic of Ireland.

But Sir John, who kick-started peace talks with the IRA which ultimately led to the Good Friday Agreement, said: "Those of us who warned of the risks Brexit would bring to the still fragile peace process were told at the time that we “didn’t understand Irish politics”.

"But it seems we understood it better than our critics.  We need a policy to protect the Good Friday Agreement – and we need one urgently.  And it is our responsibility to find one – not the European Union."