The possibility of a second Brexit referendum gripped investors’ attention last week, largely because it would sharply reduce the chance of a disastrous “no deal” outcome after the UK negotiations with the EU.
Anything is possible in Britain’s febrile political environment, but both the main party leaders strongly oppose a meaningful “people’s vote”. James Blitz cogently argues that a second vote still seems unlikely. However, it may prove to be the only way of avoiding a hard Brexit while bridging the Tory divide on the issue.
The UK has held two national referendums on EU membership, in 1975 and 2016. They were launched for the same reason: an irredeemable split in the governing party on the European issue.
Theresa May, the UK prime minister, faces such a split, but has forcibly ruled out a second referendum. If she wavers now, the Brexiters would see this as the ultimate betrayal and would try to trigger a Tory leadership contest immediately. The prime minister’s position will change only if she finds herself in a more desperate political situation in early 2019.
Meanwhile, Labour seems determined to vote against any deal that Mrs May brings home from Brussels, and will demand a general election if the deal is defeated at Westminster.
With Tory Brexiters implacably opposed to the prime minister, a “Chequers plus” agreement with the EU might be defeated, though it would require the rebels to put Brexit at risk. The prime minister is calculating that this will not happen. Her party is surely not so bent on self-destruction that they will allow Labour to force an election that could sweep the hard left to power for a decade.
Failing an election, many in the Labour party would support a referendum. But the Corbyn leadership still opposes any vote that includes “remain” as an option.
Furthermore, Labour would need the support of Tory Remainers to force this through parliament. A sufficiently large rebellion from Tory centrists is unlikely, though there are early signs it could be stirring, including support from John Major , former prime minister.
A parliamentary consensus might emerge next spring, but only if the alternative were an immediate hard Brexit.
Selecting the exact question is a huge obstacle to a second plebiscite (see the Financial Times’s Tony Barber). David Cameron’s vote in 2016 failed to settle the EU issue because one of the options, to leave, turned out to be imprecise and tortuous to implement. This merely allowed familiar political divisions to reappear, after a short respite, in an equally acrimonious form. For the sake of Britain’s democracy, the question in any new referendum should be fair and the answer unambiguous.
The most obvious route would be to ask the public simply to approve any deal agreed between the UK and the EU. But what if the answer is “no”? The UK would then have rejected EU membership in 2016, and also rejected a “soft Brexit” alternative in 2018/19. But that does not imply that voters would have accepted a hard Brexit alternative by default. Nothing whatever would be settled in that event.
Another option would be to offer three alternatives: remain, leave under the terms of the UK/EU deal, or leave under WTO terms.
This would reopen the Brexit divide in yet another form. Leavers would see it as an example of continuing to hold successive referendums until the government gets the answer it wants — a tactic familiar in other EU countries. Remainers, on the other hand, would counter that conditions have changed since 2016, and that it would be absurd to disenfranchise the slightly more than half of the electorate that leans towards remain.
Furthermore, whoever wins after a three-way split, the “victory” would probably command less than 50 per cent of the population, at least in first choice votes. Would that be seen as legitimate?
For example, the vote could be 40 per cent to remain, 35 per cent to leave under the UK/EU terms and 25 per cent to leave without a formal deal. Does that mean that remain “wins”, even though 60 per cent of the population has voted to leave? That would be an awful outcome.
Vernon Bogdanor has suggested an ingenious way round this. The referendum could pose two separate questions: first, to remain or leave; and, second, if leave, soft or hard Brexit? Again, the process would be confusing, but at least the result would be fairly hard to dispute. Britain could even take a leaf out of the French playbook, and hold the vote in two successive weeks. The second stage would only go ahead if the first vote was to leave.
In terms of long-run democratic legitimacy, a two-stage vote would be my personal choice, but it could be difficult to get a parliamentary majority for this mechanism under the stress of looming Brexit, especially if the prime minister is opposed.
So how could a second referendum emerge from this confusion?
In the event of a prospective no-deal outcome, a coalition of the willing might try to force a bill for a meaningful second referendum through parliament, despite all the obvious procedural difficulties that would involve. That has never happened before. But nor has a cliff-edge Brexit.
The more likely sequence is that Mrs May returns from her EU negotiations with a deal that is somewhat like Chequers, but with further concessions to the EU. This outcome could trigger enough Tory rebels from the pro-Brexit European Research Group to be blocked by the House of Commons, with or without a formal vote.
The government’s only life-saving option would then be to suggest a referendum on “what form of leave should we adopt: soft or hard Brexit”? That would disenfranchise the remainers, but it could also be the party compromise that keeps the Conservatives, and maybe even Mrs May, in office.