The view, expressed by the lawyer David Allen Green this week, that remain campaigners lost the aftermath of the referendum despite their opponents being very incompetent requires you to believe remainers were exceptionally incompetent. But it’s more plausible that remainers’ fundamental position was much weaker than it looked.
Despite the marches and media coverage there was no majority in Parliament for a second referendum, just as there was no majority for any course of action. Without a House of Commons majority the second referendum campaign could only stymy their opponents by blocking various forms of Brexit.
It is possible MPs would have gradually swung round to supporting a second referendum, but positions seemed to have ossified over the course of the parliamentary session. There was speculation the two prime ministers could call a second referendum to break the deadlock, but neither seemed to entertain the idea at length. Therefore a general election was the most likely means of breaking the deadlock (a point I think I missed previously).
In this scenario Jeremy Corbyn was the inevitable Labour leader, barring him dying or being incapacitated. Remain had no way of changing this, but given the above him forming a government was essential to them securing a second referendum, as the former Liberal Democrat chief Nick Clegg identified in his book How to Stop Brexit.
This meant a second referendum was contingent on Corbyn’s popularity, which remainers had no little ability to influence. We now know that by 2019 Corbyn was a major hindrance to Labour, as reflected in his approval ratings, and thus a threat the second referendum campaign.
The obvious counter to this reasoning is to ask whether the path for leave campaigners to succeed was equally unlikely. Only a Conservative government was committed to taking Britain out of the EU. Unlike Labour they had more ability to change their leader, largely due to internal governance structures and a longstanding culture of ruthlessness.
The paucity of Tory leadership candidates contesting Boris Johnson suggests to me he always had a good chance of succeeding Theresa May, and the political gridlock probably made it more likely a maverick like him was chosen. (Unconventional candidates seem more risky in normal circumstances.)
Once Johnson was in charge a general election was inevitable. Although opposition parties could have delayed it until May 2022, it is unclear whether this would have improved Corbyn’s prospects.
The likes of the political academic Matthew Goodwin would also note long-term cultural and demographic trends that worked against Labour, which are at least as important as the contingencies of party leadership and the House of Commons arithmetic. But in general, I suspect it was the Corbynites wot lost it for the remainers.