A look at the tensions inside the campaign for a second Brexit referendum

People's Vote campaigners Layla Moran MP, Chuka Umunna MP, and Caroline Lucas MP.

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People’s Vote campaigners Layla Moran MP, Chuka Umunna MP, and Caroline Lucas MP.
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REUTERS/Simon Dawson

  • Exclusive: Business Insider takes a look at the tension between the two biggest campaign groups pushing for a second Brexit vote.
  • Open Britain and Best For Britain are Westminster’s two most prominent and well-resourced groups trying to stop Brexit.
  • However, tensions between the groups have made campaigning fractious.
  • Open Britain and Best For Britain insiders told Business Insider about their sometimes difficult relationship.

LONDON – As the prospect of Britain crashing out of the European Union without a deal continues to rise, a growing number of voices are coming out in support of holding a second referendum on Brexit.

“The only solution is to take the final Brexit decision out of the hands of deadlocked politicians, away from the backroom deals, and give it back to the people,” former education secretary Justine Greening, said this week.

Greening is the latest MP to come out in favour of what campaigners call a “People’s Vote” – a nationwide referendum on the terms of the final Brexit deal.

The campaign is being led by two separate groups: Open Britain and Best For Britain. Both groups were instrumental in organising a huge march through London last month and both would surely play key roles in any future campaign to stay in the EU.

However, while the campaign has had some success so far, the two groups have had to overcome tension over exactly what they are trying to achieve and how they should achieve it.

Business Insider has spoken to key figures inside the movement about the sometimes fractious battle to make Britain think twice about Brexit.

“It’s data vs money, with a dollop of ego, all masquerading as a row about policy”

Earlier this year, Open Britain agreed to move into an office in London’s Millbank Tower with five other pro-EU groups, including Britain For Europe and InFacts. However, Best For Britain decided not to join them.

Best For Britain believes the two groups, although virtually identical in their missions, differ in a fundamental way.

The group, famously backed by George Soros among others, views itself as a grassroots organisation, but sees Open Britain as a continuation of the official Remain campaign, under greater influence from establishment figures. A senior Best for Britain source said: “We want to work closely with politicians, but not have our agenda decided by them.”

“We want to work closely with politicians, but not have our agenda decided by them.

Open Britain and Best For Britain are the two most prominent and well-resourced pro-EU groups to emerge from the Leave vote of 2016. Both boast a range of financial backers, public support from high-profile MPs, and staff plucked from across Westminster, including former government advisors and seasoned press officers.

Sources in the pro-EU movement independent from both groups claim friction between them was evidence of a proxy war ahead of a potential second referendum. An Open Britain figure told Business Insider that Best For Britain had been “quite cynical,” as they knew a second referendum was a growing possibility, and want to be the official remain campaign.

Baron Malloch-Brown, Chairperson of Best for Britain, has also been a source of tension, insiders claim.

Labelled “uncooperative” by colleagues in the Lords, Malloch-Brown has only attended eight votes in the Lords around Brexit, and was notably absent for a division to protect EU citizens in the UK’s residency rights.

Baron Malloch-Brown.

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Baron Malloch-Brown.
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YouTube/ The Guardian

Whatever the reason, both sides agree it is unlikely they will ever merge, despite the obvious advantages of doing so.

“It’d probably be lot easier, but that’s never going to happen,” a senior Open Britain insider said.

Open Britain, due to its links to the official Stronger In Campaign, boasts a wealth of data which can be used for a future campaign. Best For Britain is intensifying its grassroots activity, and has recently acquired a lot of money.

“It’s data vs money, with a dollop of ego, all masquerading as a row about policy,” a senior pro-EU activist said.

“The right hand didn’t know what the left hand was doing”

Being two separate organisations pushing for the same outcome – keeping the UK inside the EU – created friction on a practical level. Insiders recall how the two groups would often release very similar press releases – “almost duplicates,” a senior figure told BI – sometimes using quotes from the same MPs.

“We were running the same press releases, putting out the same lines,” a senior Open Britain figure said. “We weren’t at each other’s throats or anything like that. It was that the right hand didn’t know what the left hand was doing.”

Furthermore, although both groups unambiguously back the UK’s membership of the EU, there have been nuanced differences in their positions, which insiders claim at times undermined the overall message.

Jeremy Corbyn Brexit

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Leon Neal/Getty Images

Open Britain, though campaigning for another referendum, has invested time and resources into pushing for a soft Brexit. However, figures inside Best For Britain’s believed this was not radical enough, and evidence that Open Britain was backsliding on its mission to stop Brexit altogether, multiple sources have told BI.

For example, in June Best For Britain briefed a draft version of its “roadmap to stopping Brexit,” which described soft Brexit – leaving the EU but staying inside the single market and/or customs union – as a “disaster.” At the same time, Open Britain was urging MPs to back an amendment to keep the UK in the single market via the European Economic Area. “I’d be lying if I said it was extremely helpful,” an Open Britain activist told BI.

In particular, Open Britain was concerned that by trashing a soft Brexit, Best For Britain was deterring Labour MPs from affiliating with their cause. A number of soft-Brexit supporting Labour MPs have told BI they do not want to support the People’s Vote campaign for that very reason.

“You can’t say you want to stop Brexit and then have an opinion on what Brexit should look like,” one leading advocate of a soft Brexit in Labour MP told BI. Labour’s Brexit team, led by Sir Keir Starmer, has also been keen to distance itself from extra-parliamentary pro-EU groups.

You can’t say you want to stop Brexit and then have an opinion on what Brexit should look like.

Both Open Britain and Best For Britain are keen to work with Labour as they believe there is very little chance of a People’s Vote unless it is supported by Jeremy Corbyn and the shadow frontbench. It’s for this reason that both groups are encouraging members not to partake in “where’s Jeremy Corbyn?” chants at pro-EU rallies.

The relationship between the two groups has improved in recent months. “It’s peace, love and harmony right now,” a senior member of Best For Britain said.

They’re working together on a “summer of action,” which is set to kick off with regional events in Scotland, the Midlands, and other parts of the country, followed by rallies at Conservative and Labour party conferences this autumn, and a march through London in October.

“Best For Britain is fighting for a people’s vote between May’s deal and our current terms [of EU membership], and we are proud to work with all partners inside and outside the movement that share this goal,” Best For Britain CEO Eloise Todd told BI.

Last month the two biggest pro-EU groups managed to overcome months of friction to stand side-by-side at last month’s People’s Vote march. Whether this happy marriage can sustain itself remains to be seen.