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Proposal: why a Leave-options referendum just might create a pathway through the Brexit stasis

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.

They are:

No Deal

Draft EU Withdrawal Agreement

Customs Union

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

 

 

 

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