Justine Greening, the former secretary of state for education, is the first big name Tory MP to clearly call for a second referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU. She describes the Chequers agreement as a fudge – and, of course, it is – and says that parliament has no way to break the deadlock, so it must go back to the people. Greening suggests a three-way referendum, although she is not the author of this plan as it has been bandied about previously, in which the choices will be between no deal/Mad Max dystopia type thing, Remain, and the whatever remains of the Chequers deal once the EU have had at it. Voters would be asked to rank 1 to 3 their preferences.
This would be very messy on many levels. Would there be three official campaigns, one for each of the three positions? I guess there would have to be. Jesus, if you thought there was a lot of disinformation flying around during the 2016 referendum campaign, just imagine what it would be like after three years of Brexit insanity and a whole extra dimension. As it happens, I doubt very much it is going to happen. The three-way thing, not a second referendum itself, which is oddly starting to look more likely than it has ever done.
The only way I can see a second referendum becoming reality is like this: May puts what is left of the Chequers deal to parliament, which will probably look like Norway Plus with an Olympian level of semantics involved (“We are not remaining in Single Market, rather we are signing up to the new Pan-European Trading Arrangement, and Freedom of Movement will end while Mobility Liberalism will be born”). By the combined forces of the entire opposition benches and 30 odd Tory Brexiteer rebels forming an unholy alliance, May finds her deal voted down. There are epic calls for her to go, and she knows her time is short. We’re headed for no deal, Max Mad dystopia into the bargain. She knows she doesn’t have the numbers on her side to get a second referendum passed, which maybe the core remainers will want but no one else. But she can get a second referendum via the SNP, Lib Dems and a good chunk of the parliamentary Labour Party, if she three line whips her own side and most of them go along with it. Given this scenario, the only way she can get the numbers is if the choice is binary: the Chequers deal or Remain.
This may sound fantastical. But look at where we are now. This may be what it comes down to when all other choices disappear for the prime minister. I still do not think the above scenario will take place I’d like to stress – parliament voting for May’s deal in the end, or some other parliamentary fudge to buy time seem more likely. But I can’t rule it out.
But she can get a second referendum via the SNP, Lib Dems and a good chunk of the parliamentary Labour Party, if she three line whips her own side and most of them go along with it.
That’s a very very very big ‘if’ there… and also, of course, would require that ‘good chunk of the Labour party’ to be willing to rebel against the three-line whip which Jeremy Corbyn will undoubtedly put on Labour to vote against any second referendum.
But leave aside the practicalities for a moment… how do you think a second referendum with those two options would go?
I recall some analysis prior to what I suppose we must now call Referendum I saying that the country was basically divided into three roughly equal parts (like Gaul, minus Asterix’s village): ‘Hate the EU’, ‘Love the EU’ and ‘dislike the EU and would prefer to leave but are wary about the consequences of making such a big change’. Groups one and two won’t be having their minds changed, so the campaigns concentrated on the third group, one campaign playing up the dangers of rejecting the status quo, the other concentrating on the benefits to be gained (in terms of sovereignty and reclaiming control of the money that would be sent to Brussels).
In the event that middle group split slightly more to Leave than Remain, but it could have been the other way.
However, when Referendum II comes along, the Remain side is going to have a much tougher time of playing up the danger of leaving if the alternative is the softest of soft Brexit, almost no Brexit at all, really. So that third group, who remember don’t actually like the EU one little bit, will surely all go for May’s deal, right?
So unless a significant number of the first group go, ‘I hate the EU and want to leave but I hate May’s deal so much that actually I’m going to vote Remain’ — and a bigger act of nose-mutilation in all the history of the great cause of face-spiting is hard to imagine — the second referendum is almost guaranteed to be something like 66% for May’s Deal, 34% for Remain.
Soft Brexit means obeying the rules of the EU without being represented in its institutions. That means giving up sovereignty and becoming a vassal state. I cannot understand how anybody can support that.
Apart from the question of whether people like or dislike the EU, there is the question of whether people like or dislike the Conservative Party. In the 2016 referendum the Conservative Party was split with most of the leadership supporting remain and most of the grassroots supporting leave. The Conservative leavers thought that voting leave was voting for true Conservatism. Many non-Conservatives looked at the Conservative prime minister and other ministers supporting remain and thought that the way to vote against the Conservatives was to vote leave.
A second referendum with the Conservatives more or less united on the leave side would probably become a referendum on the question: “Do you like the Conservatives? I think a lot of people who dislike the EU, dislike the Conservatives even more.
That means giving up sovereignty and becoming a vassal state. I cannot understand how anybody can support that
So you think hardcore Leavers would vote to Remain, knowing they’d never get another chance to leave, rather than a deal they dislike but could hope to amend later? It’s possible I suppose but I think unlikely.
A second referendum with the Conservatives more or less united on the leave side would probably become a referendum on the question: “Do you like the Conservatives?”
If Corbyn comes out on the Remain side, yes, it would. But Corbyn doesn’t want to be put in that position, which is why I am certain he would three-line whip his MPs to vote against any referendum, so it won’t come to pass.
Paul W says
I think what you describe is a classic example of the Ms Grey option (Mrs May’s candidate for Soft Brexit perhaps) winning the chair of, say, the European affairs committee over Mr Black (campaigning for Hard Brexit and Mrs White (backing No Brexit).
The are some real examples of multi-option referendums. My favourite (and relevant) example comes from post-war Newfoundland. Two referendums were held there in June and July 1948 to decide the future of the Dominion. As with the putative Brexit Referendum II, there were three options on offer to the voters:
1. Continued government by Commission [the Newfoundland government effectively became insolvent in 1932/33 and was put into commission],
2. Restoration of pre-1934 Dominion status with responsible government, or
3. Confederation with Canada.
The Restoration of pre-1934 Dominion status with responsible government option narrowly topped the first round of voting over the Confederation with Canada option (69,000 votes to 64,000 and with 22,000 votes cast for the continuation of Commission option). As no option had more tha 50% of the vote a second referendum was organised six weeks later between the two most popular options.
In this run-off referendum the top two options were reversed: the Confederation with Canada option won the most votes over the Restoration of Dominion status with responsible government option – though still by a narrowish margin of 78,000 votes to 71,000. And the rest, as they might say, is Canadian history.
But, as Nick also says, you could get a result in one round of voting by applying the alternative vote – voting 1,2,3 in order of preference [nerdy point: only preferences 1 and 2 would matter]. But something that happened back in 2011 tells me this would be a kite unlikely to fly.
In any case, the possibiliity of the second placed option winning the AV run-off count on transferred preference votes from the eliminated third placed option might cause further controversy. A close and/ or reversed run-off AV result could thus lack the transparency and legitimacy that holding two clear-cut rounds of referendum voting conveyed to the finality of the second Newfoundland referendum result.
That said, I think the leaderships of both main UK parties will want to steer clear of holding another referendum on the ‘Europe’ issue any time soon. Not only does the issue badly divide both main parties’ members and voters, there is no guarantee that the electorate would back the Establishment’s preferred or even ‘workable’ Europe option. Where I do agree with M is that Ms Grey and her Soft Brexit stance would be the most likely winner if a three option referendum were held (and, probably, by a margin of something like 2:1).
However, I just think the awful process of getting there by way of another referendum(s) would, in the minds of the UK party leaderships, militate in favour of wrapping the Europe issue up in a general election – but only if they have to – and hoping for the best!