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Inside the Secret Plot to Reverse Brexit

For the first time, a group of rebels is going public with its plan to derail Britain’s decision to leave the EU.

By Tim Ross
and Kitty Donaldson
March 23, 2018, 1:01 AM EDT

Early every Wednesday morning, 15 people leave their homes and travel separately to a secret location in central London, where, over cups of filter coffee and plates of cookies, they plot to stop Brexit. Those who gather, bleary-eyed, in the meeting room are a mix of women and men, old and young. They include politicians and activists, both professional and little-known, though their identities haven’t been formally released. The one thing that unites them is opposition to Theresa May’s plan for Britain to make a clean break from the European Union.

Their aim: engineer a new referendum so the British people can reconsider Brexit before it’s too late. “I do not want to see Brexit happen. I think it will destroy the futures of the next generation in this country,” says Chuka Umunna, the charismatic, 39-year-old member of Parliament who chairs the weekly gathering. “But it‘s not about what I think—and shouting ‘Stop Brexit’ is not a political strategy. I want the people to get a vote.”

For the first time, people in the anti-Brexit movement in the U.K. are getting organized. That’s because, for the first time, they believe they can win. Ever since May lost her majority in Parliament after a catastrophic gamble on an early election last June, it’s been clear that she is in a weak position to lead the country through withdrawal from the EU. For six months after her election failure, she held her ruling Conservative Party together and managed to navigate the first phase of Brexit negotiations, albeit only after agreeing to pay the other 27 member states a 40 billion-pound ($56.4 billion) divorce bill.

Then came her first defeat. On Dec. 13, 11 members of May’s Tory party defied her orders and overturned the government’s will in a key vote in Parliament. The rebels ensured that lawmakers will get a binding vote on whether to accept or reject May’s final Brexit deal once negotiations with the EU end later this year. Put simply, this means that May must get an agreement that is good enough to please her own lawmakers, and that she cannot simply impose her policy on the country.

It is this make-or-break vote in Parliament—which is likely to come around October this year—that the Brexit resistance is now targeting. By lobbying legislators, they hope to block May’s deal, bring about a new referendum, or perhaps trigger a new national election. The pro-EU alliance that Umunna chairs—which includes Brexit rebels in Parliament and thousands of activists around the country—played a crucial role behind the scenes in inflicting the defeat on May.

Speaking in his exposed-wood and glass office overlooking the Palace of Westminster, Umunna says that campaigners across the country targeted different members of Parliament in the run-up to the December vote to persuade them to back the rebellion. They got “an avalanche of emails and hundreds of visits” to their offices, he says.

Increasingly, the public and politicians alike can see the dangers of Brexit and are changing their attitude as the economic risks become clear, he says. A recent leak of government analysis showed how Brexit will reduce growth by as much as 5 percentage points over 15 years if there’s a free-trade deal, or 8 points if there’s no deal at all. The most-affected areas are likely to be some of those that voted heavily to leave the EU. “It terrified some people what it was saying was going to happen in their communities,” Umunna says. “If it does happen, and they are still the members of Parliament, they won’t be forgiven.”

Umunna is always immaculately dressed, a slick media performer who briefly stood for the leadership of his Labour party in 2015, before what he called “the added level of pressure” prompted him to pull out of the race. (It was ultimately won by socialist firebrand Jeremy Corbyn). Until recently, he’s been careful to keep quiet about the work of his Grassroots Coordinating Group, as the committee is unfashionably known. He won’t say where or exactly when they meet, because he doesn’t want the gatherings to be mobbed by photographers and reporters.

Away from prying camera lenses, Umunna and his fellow Brexit rebels have been seeking the help of European leaders for their mission. On Jan. 15, he joined senior members of the Conservative party, including Anna Soubry, a former business minister, and Dominic Grieve, who served as the U.K.’s Tory attorney general (before masterminding May’s December defeat), to visit the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, in Brussels. They’ve met senior officials in other EU institutions, European foreign ministers, and ambassadors from the bloc’s remaining 27 member states—even the heads of foreign governments. Some involved privately confide that the access to senior EU politicians has been “extraordinary.”

The high-level contact is paying off. While EU officials know they must tread lightly to avoid appearing to meddle in British affairs, they are privately feeding valuable intelligence on the unfolding negotiations to their British allies. On March 6, a day before the EU published its draft plan for the next phase of Brexit negotiations, Umunna was in his office, focusing on the future trade deal with the U.K. He told Bloomberg reporters something that not even the British government officially knew at that point: that the EU would make clear in its document that its offer of a limited trade deal, with poor access for services such as banks, could be improved—if May backs down on her own strict “red lines.”

The prime minister has laid down hard rules for the talks. She wants to leave the single market, the customs union, and the direct jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, as well as to end the free migration of people. But Umunna’s information proved accurate. When the bloc published its guidelines the following day, they said that if May’s position “evolves” and she backs down on these issues, the EU will be willing to consider making a better offer.

The EU’s controversial gambit became known as the “evolution clause.” It was seen as an attempt to pry open divisions among U.K. strategists, a temptation to water down May’s hard-line stance. To some of the more paranoid anti-EU campaigners in the U.K., Umunna’s prior knowledge of the clause will serve as evidence of an international conspiracy against Brexit.

May’s defeat in December was a turning point for politicians in Europe, too. For many EU officials in Brussels and European capitals, Brexit had seemed inevitable. Their only hope was to limit the damage that the split would do and try to find a way to plug the 10 billion-euro hole in the bloc’s annual budget that the U.K.’s exit will leave. All that changed after May lost the vote in Parliament. “They recognize that Theresa May does not necessarily have a mandate for her negotiating position,’’ Umunna says. “They are very aware that actually, she isn’t in the driving seat of this. It is Parliament that will be in the driving seat.”

Since the start of the year, European leaders have lined up to tell Britain that it is free to change its mind. If May—or a different prime minister—were to write to European Council President Donald Tusk to say Brexit is off, the EU would welcome the country back into the club without hesitation, they say. While the EU continues to take the hardest line in the negotiations, officials have made clear privately that they will agree to pause the Brexit process to allow time for a new referendum, perhaps even another election if necessary, according to Umunna. “If a crisis is precipitated and there were a general election, or a new national poll, we would be granted the time to do that,” he says.

Six of the 10 groups that send representatives to join Umunna’s Wednesday morning coffee meetings have now moved into the same offices at Milbank Tower, a 10-minute walk from Parliament. This shared space—along with the weekly gatherings—makes it easier for the separate groups to brainstorm, decide on the best media lines to use, and coordinate their campaign strategy and activities. “We’ve got six months to change the game and get a people’s vote on the Brexit deal,” says Eloise Todd, chief executive of Best for Britain, one of the groups in Umunna’s weekly meeting. Partly because it accepts large donations, including 400,000 pounds from billionaire investor George Soros, Best for Britain has found itself the target of right-wing newspapers that campaigned for the U.K. to leave the EU.

Todd reckons the press attacks backfired and fueled a surge of interest in—and donations to—her campaign. She puts the odds of engineering a new referendum at “50/50.” Her team has already trained 2,000 activists in street-campaigning techniques and aims to prepare an additional 1,000 by the end of April. Digital operations are also getting the funding and resources they will need for a massive “Remain” campaign designed to build support over the summer for a referendum on May’s exit deal. Many in the movement believe that only a new public vote would have the political legitimacy to halt Brexit.

The public is warming to the idea of having the final say on the Brexit deal, says James McGrory, executive director of Open Britain. With more than 500,000 supporters, his is the largest group attending Umunna’s weekly meetings. “This is not a slam dunk, either with the public or Parliament,” McGrory says. “People will holler and say, ‘How dare you?’ but what is absolutely critical is that the democratic argument is on our side.”

The campaign against May’s version of Brexit faces huge challenges. There is no clear evidence that a new referendum would deliver a different result. In order to bring about a second national vote—against May’s wishes—Umunna and company will need to persuade enough Conservative politicians to defy their leader on an issue that could bring down her government. They must also convince the main opposition Labour Party to back their cause. At the moment, Corbyn does not support a new referendum, though he hasn’t ruled it out in the future. Umunna believes that Labour’s leadership could be persuaded, “particularly if they feel it can bring a general election closer.”

Nevertheless, the first task for the campaign groups is to make more noise in the run-up to the Parliamentary vote on May’s Brexit deal in October. “There is a weird silence that has befallen our country,” says Todd. “Businesses have persuaded themselves that they are Brexiting and they need to shore up their political capital. But it would be much better for businesses to speak truth to power.”

When it comes time for the fight, Umunna is confident the pro-EU side will be ready. The disparate groups now working together have learned from the insurgent campaign that Brexit backers fought to take Britain out of the EU. “There is a role-reversal now,” he says. “We are not the establishment any more.”

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