Pro-EU groups have joined together for a new campaign
to prevent Britain from heading to a ‘hard Brexit’ outside of
the EU, single market and customs union.
Business Insider has spoken to Chuka Umunna, Jo Swinson
and other leading figures in the campaign to force Theresa May
to change course.
Insiders believe there is currently a one-in-three
chance of Britain holding a second referendum on
However, they believe their new grassroots movement
could change the public’s mind before it is too late.
LONDON —Since the EU referendum a dizzying array of new groups
have sprung up, hoping to either change the course of the
government’s Brexit policy, or stop it in its tracks altogether
The rise of pro-EU groups such as the Scientists for EU, Gina
Miller’s Best For Britain and the New European newspaper has
created an increasingly powerful, but disparate pro-European
The movement crosses all the major parties and has the backing of
thousands of grassroots members as well as leading figures in
business, such as
the financier George Soros.
Now for the first time these groups have joined together under
the “Grassroots Coordination Group (GCG)” which is chaired by
Labour MP Chuka Umunna and championed by Conservative MP Anna
Soubry, Green Party co-leader Caroline Lucas, and Jo Swinson,
deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats.
This week Business Insider spoke to leading figures in the
campaign to find out how they plan to stop Britain from heading
down a one-way path to hard Brexit.
“It will be for the people to decide”
Through nationwide campaigning both on the doorsteps and social
media, the GCG hopes to shift public opinion in favour of another
“It’s all very well tweeting #stopBrexit but ultimately it will
be for the people to decide if we are not to Brexit. If the
people started this process, they should finish it,” Umunna told
BI this week.
The cross-party group regards the parliamentary vote on whether
to approve the withdrawal deal the prime minister brings back to
Westminster this Autumn as the most likely trigger for a second
This hypothesis leaves Umunna and co with little more than nine
months to get the public on side.
“If you were out nine months out from an election, you’d be on
the war-footing by now. We are not quite there yet,” James
McGrory, a former special advisor to Nick Clegg and
the Executive Director of the group Open
Britain, told BI.
“But we will scale up quickly. We need to get more money, recruit
more staff and up our social media presence.
“The intensity of the campaign has to go up every month between
now and October. We are dealing with this like a general election
campaign. That’s the ambition.”
We are dealing with this like a general election campaign. That’s
Umunna, who launched the cross-party group alongside activists in
Brixton, south London last week, described the group as “both an
inside and outside Parliament operation.”
He said: “I suspect the government is going to try and give us
the least information possible about the future relationship to
increase the likelihood of it getting through Parliament in the
“But I don’t think the Commons will accept that.”
In that scenario, the group believes public appetite for another
vote combined with political pressure will force the prime
minister to return the fate of Britain’s EU membership into the
hands of the British public.
“The shoe is completely on the other foot now”
The GCG believes there are two fundamental factors which will tip
the balance away from a hard Brexit.
Firstly, it senses a dynamic which favoured Leave campaigners in
2016 has been flipped on its head.
Two years ago, Remain figures were “straight-jacketed” by the
obligations of being a government-led campaign, Umunna said,
while the Leave campaign’s anti-status quo pitch put it on the
front foot with more room to manoeuvre.
Now Leavers are in government and on the back foot as their
campaign promises are held to account.
“The shoe is completely on the other foot now. By definition,
when you’re on the side of the government, you are slightly
restricted. Whereas here, we’re not,” McGrory explained.
“Take Vote Leave. During the campaign when it did its whole
alternative government stuff, they could promise things like VAT
cuts on energy and entirely new immigration systems with no
consequences, because they were never going to form a government.
The shoe is on the other foot now. when you’re on the side of the
government, you are restricted. Whereas here, we’re not.
“Here, the government is making promises on things like
frictionless trade and customs, but are restricted by the fact
that they have to actually go and negotiate these things.”
Secondly, GCG campaigners believe they are both outnumbering and
outarguing their pro-Brexit counterparts.
The group plans to campaign in constituencies nationwide — north
and south, Leave and Remain — while Umunna is scheduled to appear
in a number of debates. “There will be door-to-door campaigning
and stands in your local high street, but also online campaigning
and big rallies across the country,” the Labour MP for Streatham
Leave campaigners are aware that their side has fallen off the
pace. “The Remain side are making all the running,” Nigel Farage declared last
month. “Their determination is matched only in their
organisation,” pro-Brexit MEP, Steven Woolfe, blogged this week. “These
ultra-remainers are highly motivated and highly coordinated in
their efforts, particularly in their approach to securing media
coverage for their arguments.”
One of those leading the campaign is Liberal Democrat deputy
leader Jo Swinson.
“The energy and the passion are absolutely on the side of the
people who want to see Britain’s future inside the European
Union,” Swinson told BI.
“That is where the energy is.
“2018 is going to be pivotal. There’s absolutely still a chance
that we can choose a different path. It’s perfectly reasonable
for people to look at the facts as they know them after this
negotiation and then decide what the way forward ought to be.”
One of the group’s central focuses is social media, where it
hopes to emulate the recent and well-documented success of
pro-Jeremy Corbyn group, Momentum.
The organisations underneath the GCG umbrella boast a total of
well over 1 million Facebook page likes and more than 300,000
Twitter followers. Umunna, Soubry, Lucas and Swinson’s Twitter
followers combined surpass 650 thousand.
“It is an incredible tool for us,” Open Britain’s McGrory said.
“Labour used to it incredible effect in the last election. The
advantage that we’ve got is we’ve got significant social media
In parliamentarians like Umunna and Swinson, the group also
believes it has figures who unlike chief Remainers David Cameron,
Tony Blair and Clegg, will not be viewed by the public as
suspicious establishment figures.
“You couldn’t say they were front and centre of the 
campaign. The whole point of this GCG is its led by a younger
group of contemporary politicians. It has to be. It has to be
something new and fresh,” McGrory said.
Where is public opinion now?
Chris Curtis, Political Researcher at YouGov, said the market
research firm’s most up-to-date data suggests the Umunna-fronted
group has a lot of work to do over the next nine months, even
among 2016 Remain voters.
“Our data indicates that the public has not yet got behind a
second referendum, with 36% saying there should be a vote on the
final deal and 43% saying there shouldn’t be,” Curtis told BI
“Although there is some evidence that Remainers have been
hardening in their position over the past 12 months, just 63% now
support a new vote. This compares to 72% of Leave voters who
still oppose the idea.”
An ICM poll conducted after YouGov’s sent
waves of excitement through the Brexit-sceptic community last
month. It said 58% of Brits favoured a second EU referendum, with
42% against it. An eyebrow-raising 16% lead.
But, as polling guru, Sir John Curtice, explains in his latest blog
post, there is currently little consistent evidence across
the contemporary polling landscape to suggest support for another
referendum has increased significantly.
“Is there any consistent evidence that support for having another
referendum has increased?
“Neither of the two most substantial time series we have, from
YouGov and Opinium, provides much evidence in support of this
proposition,” Sir John wrote.
A leading figure within the GCG put the chances of another
referendum taking place at “25 to 30%.” Another offered similar
odds, telling BI the group had a “one in three” chance of
“If you had asked me this time last year I would have said 40 to
one,” the latter added.
There is some concern within the group about the role voter
fatigue could play in a 2018 referendum. It would be the fourth
major nationwide vote within the space of three years, and GCG
campaigners are worried that voters would be resistant to yet
another big vote.
“The soft Tories could be a problem,” one prominent figure in the
group said. “They often tell us they don’t like the [2016
referendum] result but just want us to get on with it. They’re
“The soft Tories could be a problem. They often tell us they
don’t like the [Brexit] result but just want us to get on with it
Swinson was confident that the gravity of the vote would get
people to the ballot box.
“There is always the risk of the Brenda from Bristol problem,”
the MP for East Dunbartonshire said, referring
to Brenda Parson’s famous reaction of “oh no, not
another one!” to May’s snap election announcement.
“But what we are talking about this year is not some unnecessary
election, but the future of our country and the prosperity and
security of generations to come.”
“Nobody is complacent. We have an important job to do and not a
lot of time.”
The hope within the group is that the Labour party will boost the
cause by eventually embracing another referendum, or at the very
least, a softer Brexit policy. “There has to be something which
triggers them,” a prominent GCG member told BI. “Human rights,
the environment, the plight of the fucking great crested newt for
all I care.”
However, GCG figures who BI spoke to were keen to downplay the
role of party politics.
Umunna told BI he feels “insulted” when accused, as he has been
on many occasions, of using Brexit as a stick to bash Jeremy
“The problem is some people on the left see people like me
campaigning against Brexit as doing this as some sort of tool of
which to bash the leadership. This is a much bigger issue. We are
talking about my family here,” he said.
“And that’s how many of my constituents see it. I actually find
it quite insulting when I am accused of weaponising an issue to
bash the leader. This isn’t about him. This is about my community
and my family.
“It’s not just political, it’s personal.I have a Danish
niece and nephew. I’m part Irish. I have family pretty much all
over Europe,” he added.
Swinson agrees: “What this is about is putting aside party
politics for the good of the country,”
“This transcends normal politics.”