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A Second Brexit Referendum?

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Returns to Scale in Frankfurt's business district
Returns to Scale in Frankfurt’s business district ©

In my last piece on Brexit I somewhat underplayed the role of a second referendum – suggesting that it would only probably come into play after a further general election, probably one that Labour won.

Things have moved on from then in that the negotiations have coalesced into a deal with which, rather remarkably, neither the desires of the ultra-Brexiteers for a clean break with Europe, nor those of the DUP for the guaranteed absence of Irish Sea trade barriers, are satisfied. This took some doing, and now gives Labour the potential role of maintaining a Conservative government that otherwise might fall – one they will not, and effectively cannot, play.

Furthermore, the failed challenge of the ultra-Brexiteers against May’s leadership of the Tory Party, resulting as it does in her insulation from a further such challenge for a year, pushes them into a situation where to get rid of her and her hated deal they must force her (but preferably not her government) to resign. Logic might therefor suggest that they are thus even more certain to vote against her in critical Commons votes – but the evidence seems to be that they would not in fact have done so in the personal confidence vote proposed by Labour.

The one possible way out of the impasse that might allow Labour (or enough Labour MPs) to support May is for her to U-turn once again, and claim force majeure in proposing a referendum on her deal. I have up to now assumed that a further referendum would need to include three choices on the ballot, preferably in an AV set-up: those between Remain, May’s Deal and No Deal. But if one lesson of the 2016 referendum is clear, it is that when a referendum proposes something that is not well-enough worked out to be straightforwardly implemented by a supportive Parliament, this is a recipe for chaos and catastrophe.

It is inconceivable that there could be a Parliamentary majority or plausible Cabinet wishing to take responsibility for intentionally inflicting the chaos of a No Deal Brexit. As such ‘No Deal’ cannot be on the referendum ballot. It would be unimplementable without a majority of explicit ‘No Dealers’ in Parliament – so barring an election producing this would actually compound all the errors made to date that give the perception of a disconnect between Parliament and the people. This realisation may be behind May’s unwillingness to contemplate a further referendum up to now – a May’s Deal v. Remain ballot would probably have ended her leadership immediately.

Since the recent leadership challenge removes this risk – and given May has already committed to stepping down before the next election – she has little now to lose from announcing a further referendum, and perhaps much to gain, in this being the one way in which her deal can become reality.

As an aside, the Tory leadership challenge arrangement is a good example of how an apparently simple mechanism can give rise to some odd circumstances. It is very difficult for one group, or individuals to time such a challenge. In theory, a concerted group equal or greater than 15% of the Conservative MPs can send in letters to trigger a confidence ballot – but given the secrecy the group have to trust each other to do what they say! Since only the 1922 Committee Chair knows how many letters have currently been submitted, no individual MP knows whether or not her or his letter will be the trigger for a challenge. The likelihood of such a challenge being well-timed is therefore slim.

What about the ‘democratic’ objections to a second referendum? Objections to the principle of a second referendum seem tenuous. There is nothing other than laziness that would prevent Leave voters repeating their votes to leave. We know that people voted Leave for different reasons – some of which the deal fulfils and some of which it doesn’t. The only way to determine how these individual pros and cons are traded off is to ask everyone. And after all, some Remain voters, sympathetic to the ‘sovereignty’ arguments for leaving the EU but fearing an economically disastrous ‘hard’ outcome, may now feel reassured enough to change their vote to leave. There will no doubt be howls of rage and protests, but as ever the counterfactual is most telling; what are the consequences of allowing the most significant UK political change in 45 years to go forward with perhaps 60% of the electorate against the form it is taking?

I think this will be what comes to pass. May will eventually announce a referendum, ask for an Article 50 extension, and explain why ‘No Deal’ cannot be on the ballot. Her deal will be rejected and her government fall. Article 50 will be revoked among promises of reform both within the UK and the EU. The Brexit ultras will respond to these events by ensuring that explicit No Deal/Reverse Deal candidates stand in every constituency in the UK in any election that takes place. Despite a significant vote share very few of these will be elected, and glory of glories, there will be widespread demands for Proportional Representation in UK Parliamentary elections – which, as I have previously argued, if it had been in place previously might have avoided this whole costly fiasco in the first place.

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