There is no good way to do Brexit: there is only a choice between catastrophe and different flavours of disaster.
Third: Another EU referendum
The consistent argument of MPs and others against stopping Brexit – even now when it’s clear that hard Brexit is catastrophic and soft Brexit is not going to benefit the UK in any measurable way – is that a majority who voted in the EU referendum, voted to Leave the EU, so they have no choice: the UK government must obey the will of the people and the UK must Brexit.
But what if the UK ran the EU referendum again?
This is a superficially-attractive option with very high stakes.
Referendums are no part of the UK’s uncodified constitution: each one has to be created by Act of Parliament.
Parliament could pass an Act for a second EU referendum: they could invite the UK electorate again to vote on leaving the EU or remaining in the EU.
When drafting the first EU referendum, it is clear that David Cameron and his government simply believed Remain would win: they saw no reason to insert any saving-clauses, such that there would have to be a high turnout or at least a 60% majority for the result to be considered binding, or that all four nations within the United Kingdom would have to have a majority for Leave for the UK to Brexit.
One enterprising Leave supporter, thinking that Leave would probably lose, started a petition shortly before the 23rd of June 2016: he wanted the UK government “to implement a rule that if the remain or leave vote is less than 60% based a turnout less than 75% there should be another referendum”.
The turnout in the EU referendum was high compared to recent general elections, 72.2%: the majority was, over the whole of the UK, 51.9% to 48.1%. England and Wales had the highest national majorities for Leave, but never reached 60%: Northern Ireland was split down the middle, the border provinces voting Remain and the central provinces voting Leave: and Scotland got a 62.0% majority for Remain.
Over four million people signed the petition in the six months following the referendum, but Parliament rejected the request on the grounds that the original referendum hadn’t specified any turnout or majority.
Nonetheless, it’s clear that the idea of a second referendum due to the narrow margin of victory, had a certain amount of popular approval at that time.
Parliament could do this, and it is entirely possible that if they did, Remain would win the vote this time: polls have been suggesting since February this year that enough Leave voters are experiencing “buyer’s remorse” to change the results if a second EU referendum were to be held now. A Survation poll in July showed a 54% majority for Remain if the referendum were to be re-run.
For anyone arguing that once Article 50 is invoked, it is not reversible, that is not an opinion supported either by the UK Supreme Court or by legal authorities in the EU. Until midnight 29th March 2019, the UK is a full member of the EU, and has the option to remain a full member of the EU, by sending notice to the Council of Europe that it has revoked its Article 50 notification.
But the first problem with this is, that to be morally and emotionally valid, the second EU referendum would have to have an equal or larger turn-out to the first, and the overall majority for Remain would have to be equal or greater than the June 2016 majority for Leave.
Since the default option at this point is to Leave with no deal, advocates of the no deal Brexit could make a solid argument that the first EU referendum is still the only real one just by urging their supporters to boycott the second one.
And we might well see a resurgence of the strange funding for the Leave campaign.
The campaign for Leave in the second referendum would be bitter, vicious, and quite possibly violent. Labour MP Jo Cox was murdered by a Britain First supporter a week before the referendum vote in June 2016. There was a spike in racist/religious-related hate crime after the EU referendum – apparently because angry racists believed they were now justified in attacking “foreigners” now that Leave had won.
Can we have a peaceful, democratic, second referendum? I would hope so.
If Remain won by a large majority and with a higher turn-out than last time, it would be inarguable that the will of the UK electorate had changed since 23rd June 2016: the UK government and individual MPs would be justified in voting to cancel the invoking of Article 50.
Would this happen?
According to current polling, yes, there’s a strong possibility.
But no matter what majority or what turnout Remain won by, the Leave campaigners would be deeply unhappy and angry that the second referendum was held at all. Brexiteers have consistently argued that the negative consequences of Brexit – deal or no deal – are imaginary inventions – “Project Fear”, “Remoaniacs”: and since few of those consequences have as yet affected the people who voted for Brexit, this wouldn’t be a difficult argument to make. Brexit is an ideology, not a political cause susceptible to fact-based reasoning.
But there is another difficulty – that of time. On Monday 13th November, European business leaders told Theresa May frankly that she must agree to a deal within a fortnight or face economic collapse.
To run a second referendum requires passing an Act of Parliament and then giving the electorate a minimum of three weeks notice. There is no way a referendum can now be run before Christmas: I would put the earliest possible date, supposing the political will were there, as March 2018.
Well before March 2018, indeed before the end of 2017, Theresa May will have to commit to a soft Brexit deal or accept the catastrophe of hard Brexit.
If the UK has somehow managed to agree to a deal, a Leave majority in a second referendum would effectively be a vote for that deal. If the UK has not managed to agree to a deal, a Leave majority effectively gives a democratic mandate to the catastrophe of hard Brexit.
As David Davis announced in Parliament on Monday 13th November, Theresa May and her coterie are only prepared to offer the House of Commons a vote on the deal May and Davis agree to with EU-27, where a no vote means leaving with no deal. (More on this in my next post.)
If Remain won by a narrow majority and/or a lower turnout than on 23rd June 2016, the presssure from Leave campaigners in the oligarch-owned media, the Conservative and Labour parties, the two independent but strangely-funded Leave campaigns, on any MPs that vote in Parliament to remain in the EU – would be very strong to simply ignore the result, to declare the first referendum the only real one. One MP has already been assassinated by an adherent to this cause: what violence might follow the revocation of what Leavers campaigned for, voted for, and won?
But suppose in March 2018, or whenever, Remain won by a large majority and a higher turnout than on 23rd June 2016, the saner and more reasonable side of the Leave movement would have to admit that they had lost – for now. But once the principle is established that EU referendums can be held every two or three years, there would be pressure for EU referendums to happen again. And again.
I don’t like to think what he less-sane and unreasonable side of the Leave movement would do.
There is one person who had a narrow window to stop the whole thing, at the cost of his career: David Cameron.
When Leave got a narrow majority in England and Wales, and lost in Scotland and in Northern Ireland, David Cameron could have made a speech on the morning of 24th June that the referendum had only been advisory, not binding: that he would now establish a commission to investigate the consequences of abiding by the referendum, which would report back to the House of Commons in a few weeks on a specific date: and that among the consequences the commssion would be asked to consider, would be the effect on the United Kingdom and on the Good Friday Agreement in asking Scotland and Northern Ireland to leave the EU when they had voted against it. Other consequences of Brexit – trade, the economy, farming, the NHS – would also need to be considered.
David Cameron could then have made his resignation speech to the House of Commons presenting his report: refusing to invoke Article 50 on such a narrow majority with such huge, damaging, and far-reaching consequences.
But David Cameron is a spineless rat, as we all know, and he ratted: ran away to write his memoirs in an expensive shed in his back garden.
So now we are stuck with this. Another referendum would be a costly way of stirring up trouble and wouldn’t necessarily end Brexit.