In November 2017, I wrote that the idea of having a second EU referendum was a “superficially-attractive option with very high stakes”.
So it still is, and I stand by everything I wrote a year ago about the risks and dangers of a second referendum: including the risk that Leave might still win.
We do know a lot more now about how the Leave campaign unlawfully gathered data uon UK voters, how they used that data to target adverts on Facebook, and how they illegally overspent the limits set by the Electoral Commission.
We can assume that if there is a second referendum, exactly the same advert-targeting, similiar over-spending, and the same kind of data-gathering, would happen – because no effective legal action has been taken against the perpetrators.
Nevertheless, the polls continue to indicate that if there were a second referendum, this time Remain might well win; though as I noted over a year ago, to be democratically valid, a second referendum ought to have similar turn-out and at least the same scale of majority for Remain as Leave won by last time.
The practical justification for having a second referendum became alarmingly clear in December when May unilaterally cancelled the House of Commons’ debate on her deal before MPs could vote on it, since she understood that if they did vote on it, her deal would be voted down. May then won a leadership challenge and became bullet-proof til 14th December 2019 – but 117 MPs of her own party voted against her.
May had 200 Tory votes in mid-December – assuming that if they would vote for her to remain their leader, they would also vote for her deal. She may have acquired more votes from the 117 Tory MPs who voted against her – who didn’t do so in unity: some of them would have been Jacob Rees-Mogg band of vultures, some Remainers who spoke against May’s deal in debate.
But to get her deal ratified by a vote in the Commons, May needs to have more Tory MPs voting for her deal than 95% of Labour MPs, 90% of LibDem MPs (, and the 40 votes of SNP, Plaid Cymru, and Green. At the very meanest estimate, May has to have 300 Tory MPs voting for her deal to beat the opposition: and no one thinks she can do it. The hard-Brexiters of her own party are unappeasable.
I noted yesterday that though Theresa May can’t get her deal ratified by the Commons, she also can’t lose a vote of confidence (or not twice) before 29th March 2019. And as she also can’t now be replaced with another MP, we will have her as Prime Minister well past Brexit Day – I think until her charmed time runs out and Tory MPs can challenge her for the leadership again, in December 2019.
Theresa May, for all her myriad faults, is not a hard-Brexiter. She seems to have supposed, right up until 26th April 2017, that she could have the UK formally leave the EU to satisfy the referendum vote, but keep all the bits of EU membership she liked: at a disastrous dinner party with Juncker, not four weeks after she had invoked Article 50, she is reported to have told EU President Jean-Claude Juncker “Let’s make Brexit a success” – to be warned by Juncker that while the EU wanted to avoid chaos, “Brexit cannot be a success”.
Westminster MPs are not accustomed to the horrid realisation that a deal is not going to be swung their way and that there is nothing they can do to change that. The UK’s international politics are all based on the notion that the UK is a leader, not a partner.
And few people – including most Westminster MPs – have been thinking about what leaving the EU is going to be like. Most people born in the UK have never lived through a crisis. Brexit, for Theresa May, has become a political goal that must be achieved to preserve her face: and while Jeremy Corbyn is understandably-cautious about what he says about Brexit, his actions suggest he sees Brexit as primarily a way to get the Tories out of government.
A large part of May’s Tory MPs won’t vote for her deal. Most Labour MPs won’t vote for May’s deal. The DUP won’t vote for May’s deal. And the SNP, most of the LibDems, Plaid Cymru and our lone Green MP, who have all been consistently parties of Remain, will not vote for May’s deal. They are all quite right not to do so: it’s a terrible deal, taking an economy fragile from the Tory-bashing it’s had for eight years and subjecting it to a long slow decline as the UK falls away from most of its former markets.
But if May’s deal doesn’t pass, and no further action is taken, the UK crashes out in no-deal Brexit, which is catastrophically worse, desired only by the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg and other vulture capitalists who see it as their road to plunder the UK of billions. The majority of those MPs who won’t vote for May’s deal don’t want no-deal Brexit either.
The House of Commons is gridlocked. This is as dull a crisis as an ambulance stuck in a traffic jam with a dying patient inside.
There, I said “crisis”. This is my idea of a political crisis: the Prime Minister and her Cabinet and her MPs and the Opposition and the other parties all locked in an endless argument which never goes anywhere and never changes and matters hugely.
The real crisis, post-Brexit, is when the food shortages provoke riots.
The only way out is either for the Prime Minister to take unilateral action by revoking Article 50, which I have to say I see as implausible as her hugging a refugee – or by her Cabinet forcing her to take the democratic way out and having a second referendum, to ask the UK electorate whether they want to leave the EU on May’s deal, or to remain in the EU.
But do we have time for that?
Each UK referendum is established by Act of Parliament, which sets the terms and conditions for that referendum. An Act of Parliament takes about 8 weeks to draft; the question-testing for the text of the ballot paper would also take weeks, but could run concurrently with drafting the Act. The Act would then have to pass the Commons, so it would have to be as acceptable to the majority of Labour MPs as to the 200 or so Tory MPs Theresa May can count on.
Let us suppose that on the morning of 16th January, having watched her deal lose in the Commons the previous day, Theresa May decides to upstage Jeremy Corbyn at PMQs by announcing her intention to hold a second referendum to vote on her withdrawal deal. Let us further suppose that this was greeted with cross-party general enthusiasm by a majority of MPs, and that the Bill for EU Referendum 2019 (and the question-testing) went smoothly through all stages and became an Act of Parliament on 13th March 2019.
Normally, a referendum allows for a minimum of eight weeks campaigning. We would hold EU Referendum 2019 on Thursday 2nd May. An extension would have to be requested from EU-27, but for a national referendum on Leave or Remain, ensuring that the UK cannot crash out in no-deal Brexit, I think there would be unanimous consent to that.
It would be proper, in case the UK votes Remain, for parties who wish to select their candidates for the European Parliamentary elections to do so. Naturally, the Greens, the SNP, Plaid Cymru, and the LibDems, would do so. Labour probably would.
But the Tories and UKIP? This would put anti-EU parties in an interesting position: if they were to select PPC for the European Parliament, wouldn’t they be as good as admitting they don’t have confidence they’re going to win the referendum?
If once all the ballots are counted, on the morning of Friday 3rd May, the UK has opted to Remain in the EU – then the pro-EU parties who selected candidates may launch into their European Parliamentary election campaigns for the vote on 23rd May, with just three weeks to go.
In short; we do have time for a second referendum. But only just.
The eight weeks needed to create the Act can’t be truncated – nor can the question-testing. Eight weeks from the government’s decision to have a second referendum to the Act receiving Royal Assent is our absolute minimum time.
The traditional minimum-of-8-weeks campaigning time could be truncated, on the grounds that the UK public has seen the topic debated for two years now. But even a snap general election allows a minimum of three weeks, and that is final. If legislation for a second EU referendum isn’t triggered by 14th February, we really are out of time even for that option.
And really: I think 16th January is our last possible realistic date, even with EU-27 support.
Though worth considering: Thursday 2nd May is the last date possible to allow the UK to remain and to stand candidates for election to the European Parliament on 23rd May. But if Theresa May is determined to rig the decision for Leave, she could have the second referendum’s date set too late to make any difference: to be clear, the UK might spend the next 5 years of EU membership, if we are fortunate enough for Remain to win, with only 50 MEPs representing us in the EU Parliament.
And it is, I fear, entirely possible – if we do remain – that UKIP will have selected and prepped their candidates and be all ready for a short, nasty, and quite possibly horribly successful campaign to have a majority of those 50 UK MEPs be UKIP’s.
So – we do have time for a second EU referendum. Just barely, only if we’re allowed an extension by EU-27 – and in a few weeks, we really won’t.