Steve Beauchampé considers the seemingly intractable political dilemma of Brexit, increasingly concerned by the tensions and intolerances within the UK’s political systems and structures. Although a Leave-options idea been around for a while he suggests that it has hidden merits that have so far been largely overlooked. He writes:
The result of 2016 EU Referendum was incontestably a win for Leave. The total number of votes cast is not in dispute. However, what form of Leave the electorate supported is unknown. Campaigners such as senior members of the Conservative European Research Group and Brexit Party Leader Nigel Farage claim that Leave voters wanted a No Deal Brexit but we cannot know this for certain.
Whilst the predominant message from Leave campaigners in 2016 was that a No vote meant leaving the European Single Market and Customs Union, there were at times conflicting and ambiguous messages as to the precise definition of Leave. Departing the EU without a deal was certainly scoped out as a possibility but we do not have to examine the arguments made at the time too deeply to appreciate that other Leave scenarios were also suggested, even by high profile figures such as Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Farage.
It seems reasonable to assume that all Remain voters wished to stay in the Single Market and Customs Union (the obvious consequences of voting Remain), therefore if only 5% of Leave voters supported either of these options then there would be no majority for a No Deal Brexit. However we do not know for certain what the percentages were, either in 2016, or now.
MPs have voted against Theresa May’s Draft EU Withdrawal Agreement on three occasions and there are currently no further plans to bring it back to the House of Commons for a fourth vote. With parliament still unable to agree on how to deliver Brexit the position of many MPs seems recently to have been hardening, either towards backing No Deal or supporting a second, ‘confirmatory’ public vote. There are good reasons to think that the current political stasis could continue whoever succeeds Theresa May as Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative Party and that this log jam might carry on even beyond the next General Election. Given such ongoing paralyses there seems perhaps only one way to resolve the question as to how we leave, whilst potentially allowing the country to move beyond Brexit. That is by asking the public what form of Leave they would support.
To achieve this those at either edge of the debate must compromise. Remainers have to accept that they lost in 2016 with voters promised that the referendum result would be both respected and implemented. This promise was backed up both when MPs overwhelmingly voted to trigger Article 50 (March 2017) and in the Conservative and Labour Party manifestos for the June 2017 General Election. Leavers meanwhile have to accept that they cannot know for certain what form of Brexit the public want because in 2016 the electorate were not asked that question.
This compromise takes the form of a second referendum, but crucially one where Remain is not an option (that having been democratically ruled out in 2016). Instead it proposes three or perhaps four forms of Leave, which roughly reflect what appear to be the most popular Leave alternatives based on House of Commons votes, opinion polls and public discourse. They also cover a broad spectrum of Brexit options.
Draft EU Withdrawal Agreement
European Free Trade Area (aka Common Market 2.0/Norway Plus)
Using a form of Single Transferable Vote (STV), voters list their preferred options from 1-4 with the first to reach 50%+1 the winner.
It is envisaged that the referendum campaign would last approximately six weeks.
Referendum Act 2019 would state that the result of the referendum is binding and will become law.
If No Deal or the Draft EU Withdrawal Agreement were to win then the UK could depart the EU within approximately three months of the vote taking place. If either the Common Market or EFTA options were preferred then a slightly longer period between the poll and the UK’s departure may be required. In all instances other than a No Deal Brexit a transition period of around 21 months, as already laid out in the current Draft EU Withdrawal Agreement, would likely be necessary.
So as to focus concentration on the idea itself I shall for now leave aside the not inconsiderable matter of whether such a Bill would be able to command sufficient parliamentary support or would be acceptable to the EU.
The proposed referendum is designed to give each option a fair and equitable chance of winning, and to avoid the accusations of being ‘fixed’ or ‘loaded’ that have accompanied the People’s Vote campaign, which wants the choice to be between Theresa May’s Deal vs Remain. The above proposal however offers Leave supporters who are so minded the chance to secure a No Deal Brexit whilst taking a second In/Out referendum off the agenda. And it offers Remainers the chance to stop No Deal and provides them with an opportunity for the UK to remain in a Customs Union.
A Leave-options only referendum would essentially oblige all sides of the debate to take part in campaigning for their favoured option (not least for fear of ceding the result to an option they likely are desperate to avoid).
Having participated in such a referendum it would be hard for any politician or campaign group to refuse to accept its outcome and seek to overturn the result. Any that did so risk incurring the wrath of the wider public and would hopefully face a career destined to be played out on the margins of UK political life.
With up to four options available to the electorate it is unlikely that any of them would receive sufficient support to win on first preference votes. This means that both voters and campaigners would need to consider what compromises they would be prepared to accept, something which would by definition encourage many from the bunker-like positions in which an increasing proportion of both politicians and electors appear to be placing themselves.
In the almost three years since the 2016 referendum the arguments for and against Brexit have continued unabated. They have become repetitive, divisive and toxic whilst also being a massive turn off for many voters, desperate to move on. Yet the current impasse seems both intractable and unresolvable without one side suffering a humiliating defeat. And that would merely prolong the arguments and result in a simmering anger and frustration whose legacy could dominate and overwhelm UK politics for a generation.
Faced with such an unappetising prospect, a significantly different approach is surely required.
May 29th 2019
Today, the Times has published evidence that leading Conservative donors, who spent millions on the Brexit campaign, now believe that Britain may never leave the European Union at all.
This evidence supports Owen Jones’ view of a division in society “between a rapacious elite that has plunged Britain into economic and social crisis on one hand, and a majority that suffers the consequences on the other”.
One named donor was hedge fund manager Crispin Odey, founder of Odey Asset Management and a big financial backer of the campaign to leave the union, who has given more than £870,000 to money to pro-Leave groups, to Conservatives, Ukip and Jacob Rees-Mogg’s North East Somerset constituency in the last general election.
Odey had been betting heavily on a sharp fall in the value of UK government debt in April, according to investor documents seen by the Financial Times.
He revealed yesterday however (in the Times), that he was now betting on the pound to strengthen after Brexit failed, in the expectation that leaving the bloc would hit the UK economy hard.
Jeremy Hosking (below right), a fund manager who donated £1.69 million to the Brexit campaign and has given £375,000 to the Conservatives since 2015, said he was worried that the country would end up with something that was “not a Brexit deal at all”.
Terence Mordaunt, who donated £50,000 to the Brexit campaign and more than £30,000 to the Tories since 2003, said he feared that “we may never get out”.
He said: “I don’t think Theresa May’s deal actually fulfils what was promised in the referendum. It will take a long time and it gives a huge amount of power to Europe in the future. We may never get out.”
Billionaire Peter Hargreaves, who founded the financial services company Hargreaves Lansdown, gave £3.2 million to the Leave campaign, the second-biggest donation, said: “I have totally given up. I am totally in despair, I don’t think Brexit will happen at all.”
Government insists that Theresa May’s Brexit deal will give the UK “flexibility”.
Jeremy Corbyn asks: “But flexibility for whom?” He suggests:
- Flexibility for employers to exploit workers.
- Flexibility for big corporations to pollute our environment.
- Flexibility for multinational giants to undercut our neighbours and drive down standards everywhere.
In the Financial Times, lawyer David Allen Green points out some of government‘s actual or planned ‘constitutional trespasses’ over the past three or so years:
- Theresa May’s government prolonged the current parliamentary session over two years, to avoid a Queen’s Speech on which they could lose a vote.
- The government packed the standing committees (which scrutinise legislation) with Conservative majorities by procedural sleight of hand.
- A secretary of state repeatedly misled the House and its committees over the extent and existence of Brexit sector analyses reports.
- The government deliberately broke the Commons’ “pairing” convention when an opposition MP was on maternity leave so that the government could win a vote.
- The government committed itself to billions of pounds of public expenditure in a blatant bribe to the Democratic Unionist party for support.
- The government repeatedly seeks to circumvent or abuse the Sewel convention in its dealings with the devolved administrations.
- The government seeks to legislate for staggeringly wider “Henry VIII powers” so that it can legislate and even repeal Acts without any recourse to parliament.
- The government sought to make the Article 50 notification without any parliamentary approval and forced the litigation to go all the way to the Supreme Court (where it lost).
- The government employed three QCs to oppose the litigation on whether Article 50 could be revoked unilaterally (which it also lost).
- This government became the first administration in parliamentary history to be held in contempt of parliament following its refusal to publish the full Brexit legal advice issued by the Attorney General.
He ends: “Mr Bercow did more in allowing that vote to “bring back control” than any single leave-supporting MP has done since the referendum. The press should be celebrating that an over-mighty executive was halted and that the people’s representatives got to have their say”.
Molly Scott Cato MEP: Theresa May has triggered Article 50, formally notifying our European partners that we’re leaving the EU
The decision to leave the EU is the most destructive political decision of my lifetime. It sets us on a dangerous path towards extreme Brexit and will leave our country isolated, impoverished, and more divided than ever I can remember.
Brexit is likely to prove catastrophic for our businesses, particularly SMEs and for the environment and lead to confusion and distress for many people.
For these reasons I cannot support triggering Article 50 and it is why I have set out, along with my fellow Green MEPs Jean Lambert and Keith Taylor, five Green Guarantees that must be met to ensure social, economic and environmental justice post-Brexit.
The referendum is non-binding.
The FT’s leader today expanded on this:
“A vote for Brexit will not be determinative of whether the UK will leave the EU. That potential outcome comes down to the political decisions which then follow before the Article 50 notification.
“The policy of the government (if not of all of its ministers) is to remain in the EU. The UK government may thereby seek to put off the Article 50 notification, regardless of political pressure and conventional wisdom.
What matters in law is when and whether the government invokes Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty
“This is the significant “red button”. Once the Article 50 process is commenced then Brexit does become a matter of law, and quite an urgent one. It would appear this process is (and is intended to be) irreversible and irrevocable once it starts. But invoking Article 50 is a legally distinct step from the referendum result — it is not an obligation”.
The UK would have two years to negotiate a deal after triggering the exit clause of the EU treaties; extending talks beyond that would require unanimous agreement of the EU’s member states.
A Telegraph article adds that issues would include what financial regulations would still apply to the City of London, trade tariffs and movement rights of EU citizens and UK nationals. The agreement would have to be ratified both by the European council and the parliament in Strasbourg. During that time Britain would continue to abide by EU treaties and laws – however it would not take part in any decision making.
And could the United Kingdom legally disregard a vote for Brexit?
“What happens next in the event of a vote to leave is therefore a matter of politics not law. It will come down to what is politically expedient and practicable.
- The UK government could seek to ignore such a vote; to explain it away and characterise it in terms that it has no credibility or binding effect . . .
- Or they could say it is now a matter for parliament, and then endeavour to win the parliamentary vote.
- Or ministers could try to re-negotiate another deal and put that to another referendum.
He adds: “There is, after all, a tradition of EU member states repeating referendums on EU-related matters until voters eventually vote the “right” way”.
Green shows that there are ‘ways and means’ to avoid Brexit.