Sir John Major has become the second former prime minister within 24 hours to question the Brexit process, saying there is a “perfectly credible” case for a second referendum on leaving the European Union.
Speaking shortly after Tony Blair argued in an interview that Brexit could be reversed if the public changed its mind, Major said that the 48% of voters who wanted to remain should not be subject to the “tyranny of the majority”.
The former Conservative prime minister said in a speech at a private dinner on Thursday that the opinions of remain voters should be heard in the debate about how Britain left the EU, the Times reported.
In his first intervention over the issue since the 23 June referendum, Major said he accepted the UK would not remain a full member of the EU, but hoped any Brexit deal would mean the UK remained as close as possible to EU members and the single market, which he described as “the richest market mankind has ever seen”.
Whatever happened with Brexit, he said, he could not accept that those people who voted to remain should have no input on the terms of Brexit.
“I hear the argument that the 48% of people who voted to stay should have no say in what happens,” he said. “I find that very difficult to accept. The tyranny of the majority has never applied in a democracy and it should not apply in this particular democracy.”
Major argued that it must be parliament, not the government, that made the final decision on any new deal with the EU, and there was a “perfectly credible case” for a second referendum on such a deal.
Major was addressing a dinner and question-and-answer session commemorating the 100th anniversary of David Lloyd George becoming prime minister.Earlier on Thursday, the New Statesman published Blair’s comments about the possibility of Brexit being halted.
In an interview to mark his return to commenting on political matters, Blair said he was not predicting Brexit would not happen, only that there was a possibility it would not. “It can be stopped if the British people decide that, having seen what it means, the pain-gain, cost-benefit analysis doesn’t stack up,” he said.
Such a turnaround could arise in one of two ways, both of them hinging on negotiations over access to the EU’s single market, Blair said.
“Either you get maximum access to the single market, in which case you’ll end up accepting a significant number of the rules on immigration, on payment into the budget, on the European court’s jurisdiction. People may then say, ‘Well, hang on, why are we leaving then?’
“Or alternatively, you’ll be out of the single market and the economic pain may be very great because, beyond doubt, if you do that you’ll have years, maybe a decade, of economic restructuring.”
Theresa May’s spokesman dismissed the idea of a second referendum.
“We’ve been clear all along that the people of the United Kingdom have given the government a very clear instruction to take us out of the European Union,” he said. “Even Sir John has accepted that we are going to be leaving the European Union.”
Asked about the idea of the 48% of remain voters having no say, the spokesman said such issues were being raised in Commons debate and in the work of the Brexit select committee: “All these opinions will be fully aired and fully debated.”
He dismissed Major’s notion of the “tyranny of the majority”, saying: “It was a full and fair, democratic vote, and the majority voted to bring Britain out of the European Union. It is now the job of the government to deliver on the will that was expressed on that vote.”
The Liberal Democrat leader, Tim Farron, said: “When a former Conservative prime minister publicly comes out in support of a Lib Dem policy, it shows we are the only sensible party on Brexit.
“The British people voted for departure but they didn’t vote for a destination, and they certainly didn’t vote to make the nation poorer and risk jobs. The haphazard way May’s cabinet are handling Brexit makes the case for a referendum on the deal stronger each day, and we’re glad to have growing cross-party support for this campaign.”
Like Blair, Major was notably more pro-EU than many other MPs in his party. The former Tory prime minister’s time in office was marked by persistent battles with his backbenchers over Europe.
The peak of the disruption came in 1995 when Major stood for re-election as Conservative leader against the leading Eurosceptic John Redwood in an attempt to regain his authority on Europe.
Major’s comments are likely to enrage some of his former foes, such as Redwood, who are still in parliament.