The “centre of gravity” on Brexit is shifting towards a second referendum on the final deal, the Liberal Democrat leader has said. Vince Cable was speaking as thousands of opponents of Brexit in the south-west of England took part in the first of a series of regional days of action planned by the People’s Vote campaign across the country.

Joining Conservative and Labour MPs and a Green MEP in addressing more than 700 supporters of a second referendum at Colston Hall in Bristol, Cable rejected claims that it would be undemocratic to put the question of EU membership back to another public vote, after the 52%–48% victory for leave in 2016.

Promises of a smooth and amicable withdrawal deal and a cash boost for the NHS had proved unfounded, Donald Trump’s protectionist policies had cast doubt on Brexiters’ vision of new trade deals, and voters were now more aware of the complexities of issues such as the Irish border, he said.

“The world has changed,” Cable told Sky News. “It is perfectly reasonable to go back to the public and ask, ‘Is this what you really want, or do you want to stay in the EU and reform it from within?’ It is a perfectly legitimate democratic expression.

“It is perfectly normal in countries that have a tradition of referendums – which we haven’t in the UK – to have confirmatory votes at the end to see whether people are happy with what the government has negotiated.”

The Lib Dem leader said it was possible that MPs would be unable to deliver a majority in the House of Commons on any of the most likely outcomes – a no-deal Brexit, a negotiated deal along the lines proposed by Theresa May, or continued EU membership.

He added that it would be difficult if MPs attempted to reverse the 2016 result without securing the explicit consent of the public. “I think it is difficult when you have had a public vote for parliament to then overturn it,” he said. “I think there is a need to go back to the public, to have proper democratic legitimacy.”

Cable also pointed to a nationwide poll of more than 10,000 voters which this week found that Britain would back continued EU membership by 53% to 47% if a referendum was held now.

About 45% of 10,121 adults questioned by YouGov for the People’s Vote wanted a referendum on the outcome of the Brexit negotiations, with 34% opposed. And 50% said that the public should have the final say on whether the UK crashes out of the bloc without a deal if talks break down, compared to just 25% who believed that parliament should decide.

“It is very clear that the public is moving in our direction,” said the Lib Dem leader. “Polls in the last few days suggest there is a 10-point margin between those who favour a fresh vote as opposed to those against. It’s clear that the centre of gravity is moving and it is absolutely right that we reflect that.”

Sarah Wollaston, the Conservative MP for Totnes, said: “To proceed with Brexit without a People’s Vote would be like a surgeon carrying out an amputation having sought their patient’s consent two years beforehand without either of them knowing whether they were going to lose a few toes or their whole leg.

“Informed consent to Brexit can only happen once people know the final deal – if any – and have clear information about the risks as well as any benefits.”

Wollaston added that it would be “grossly irresponsible” for the government to proceed without consulting the public, and ministers would “bear full blame for the consequences” if they did.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, chairman of the Brexit-backing European Research Group, played down the significance of polls showing a shift of opinion to remain. “Most of the polls said people would vote to remain in the EU in 2016, but when people got to the ballot booth they voted to leave,” he told Sky News.

“The votes that matter are the votes cast in genuine elections. Opinion polls come up with a whole range of answers and they differ from day to day, but elections themselves are authoritative.”

Referring to the Lib Dems continued campaign against Brexit despite their poor result in the 2017 general election, he added: “One rather thinks that a fool returneth to his folly as a dog returneth to his vomit.”

The People’s Vote event in Bristol will be followed by others in Edinburgh, Newcastle, Cambridge and Cardiff before culminating in marches to coincide with the Labour party conference in Liverpool and the Conservative conference in Birmingham.


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