May's Brexit Blindspot

Forget Hard Brexit vs. Soft Brexit. Online, supporters of the People's Vote are winning the day.

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Trends in the digital debate surrounding Brexit suggest Prime Minister Theresa May might be overlooking what could emerge as the biggest threat to her Brexit deal – and ultimately her government. So far, conventional wisdom is that the Hard Brexit-backing wing of her party, which has undermined her since the beginning of her premiership, poses the greatest threat to May's goals. But the hardline Remainers, not the Brexiteers, have sustained the momentum online heading into Brexit’s most critical juncture.

As things stand now, it seems that if she can get cabinet over the line, May appears confident she has the votes in Parliament to narrowly push an EU exit deal through when it would come to a vote in December. In a speech last night, she said negotiations had reached “the endgame” and that she had instructed her cabinet to read the draft withdrawal agreement ahead of a meeting today. On the other side of the channel, the “parameters of a possible” Brexit deal are in place, according to lead EU negotiator Michel Barnier.

To guarantee May secures the votes, Tories are looking to consolidate support from Labour MPs in marginal, Leave-voting constituencies that would offset Eurosceptic Conservatives and frustrated DUP members who are poised to defy the government on Brexit.

However, it seems that waging the parliamentary endgame along mainstream Hard versus Soft Brexit lines may be misguided. Since September, in the digital realm, the two sides of the debate have tracked each other quite closely. In the past, Hard Brexit online activity surged when Brexiteers seized the initiative in the domestic Brexit debate, such as around the invocation of Article 50. This fall, however, that is not the case.

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Right now, a different faction in the Brexit arena is ascendant. The Hardline Remainers – those who support the People’s Vote, a second referendum on the Brexit deal – are generating a steadily increasing amount of online activity. The signal for the Remainers has been rising since the People’s March, when nearly three quarters of a million people rallied in London in support of a second referendum, and has shown no sign of fading. Notably, activity from both Labour and Conservative politicians who support another referendum is driving the signal upward.

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While Hard and Soft Brexiteers in the government and the opposition quarrel over whether to back May’s deal, supporters of the People’s Vote are gearing up for a much larger, more disruptive fight. Should Theresa May want to assure an orderly Brexit and remain in office, she best pay attention.