Theresa May has sparked fury and ridicule after suggesting that a second Brexit referendum would trigger riots in the streets from Leave voters.
Speaking in the House of Commons, the prime minister for the first time raised the spectre of violence, declaring a fresh vote on quitting the EU could “damage social cohesion” by trashing faith in democracy.
Less than a week after suffering a historic defeat on her Brexit plan, May took a harder line than ever in rejecting the idea of a so-called “people’s vote” to give Britons a say on the deal with Brussels.
Angry Labour MPs said she was giving succour to “fascist” groups, while Liberal Democrat leader Sir Vince Cable wondered whether she was going to use troops to keep the peace.
In what appeared to be a new harder line to please her backbench Brexiteer MPs to win support for her deal, May told a packed Commons of the dangers of a new referendum stalling or reversing the 2016 decision to quit the EU.
“There has not yet been enough recognition of the way that a second referendum could damage social cohesion by undermining faith in our democracy,” she said.
Downing Street suggested that the PM had not been referring to street violence with her ‘social cohesion’ remark, but critics claimed her intention was clear.
Several MPs pointed out that far-right protestors have targeted referendum-supporting Tories like Anna Soubry recently, accusing them of being traitors.
Labour MP Peter Kyle asked May: “There is only an ultra small minority of very, very right wing people who are trying to undermine social cohesion in this country in order to prevent a people’s vote.
“When did the Tory party start running away from fascists rather than standing up to them?”
The PM said his remark was ‘beneath’ him, but rammed home her point that there would be public anger if the vote of 2016 was not delivered.
“Throughout my political career I have said when I have seen other countries have second referendums on decisions in relation to Europe – because it didn’t come out in the way that politicians at the time wanted it to come out – that it was hugely important that people accepted the result of the first referendum.
“This house overwhelmingly voted for that referendum, this House overwhelmingly voted to trigger Article 50. I believe we should follow through on those decisions.”
Asked what the collapse of social cohesion meant, a No.10 spokesman said: “There is a covenant of trust between the electorate and the government of the day.
“The PM’s firm belief is that it’s the government’s duty to act on the clearly expressed wishes of the electorate and obviously were that not to happen I think she’s saying that wouldn’t be and shouldn’t be without consequences.
“One of the points the PM has made in the past is about people, some of whom have participated in a democratic process for the first time in their lives, and they expect having given a clear instruction, that that will be delivered upon.
“Clearly it’s not unreasonable that there might be bad feeling or rancour or however you want to describe it if those people didn’t feel the instruction had been carried out.”
“I think she’s talking about the bond of trust that has to exist in a democracy between the electorate and the elected.”
But in the Commons, Lib Dem leader Cable pointed out that Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson put 3,500 troops on standby for Brexit emergencies.
“Could she clarify what their rules of engagement would be in the event that they faced angry and violent demonstrators, and would they be armed?”
May replied the troops would relieve others undertaking roles such as ‘guarding of certain sites’.
Labour MP Catherine McKinnell told HuffPost UK: “Theresa May is playing a dangerous game with her warnings about social cohesion.
“Brexit has divided the country, but what would undermine faith in our democracy is if MPs force a Brexit plan through on which the country has no say and is not supported by either remain or leave voters.
“A new vote would be different from the last one, focused on a real Brexit deal rather than a vague promise which can’t be delivered, with a different campaign talking about a different Britain. The answer to far-right thugs threatening our democracy must always be more democracy, not less.”
Chuka Umunna, a leading campaigner for a People’s Vote, told May: “It would be wholly wrong to allow any group in society to threaten and intimidate us into not following our democratic processes and into not holding votes.”