Should the UK government offer voters a second, ‘People’s’, referendum, and/or should it declare that leaving without a deal is off the table?
Since the Prime Minister’s Withdrawal Agreement (WA) was massively voted down there now appears to be no way the House of Commons can agree a way forward. More politicians are backing the ‘People’s Vote’ campaign as a way of breaking the deadlock, supported by the usual suspects . Superficially it seems to have some logic: our representatives can’t agree so we have to tell them again. However there are also some obvious problems with a second referendum.
The first is what the question would be. The exact wording is something that has to be agreed by the Electoral Commission (whose members seem by their public statements and post-Referendum rulings to have revealed themselves to be aligned with Remain, so let’s hope we could trust them). Some advocates are saying that ‘no deal’ cannot be on the ballot paper because it would be a catastrophe, a word that is reiterated as though it is a foregone conclusion and beyond argument. Jeremy Corbyn is refusing to talk to the Prime Minister until she rules out no deal, which is absurd since he wants to leave [i]. It would make the UK’s negotiating position even weaker because the prospect of no deal would be “catastrophic” for Germany in particular . Most importantly the people voted to leave last time but removing the option would be to tell us, “you voted to leave the EU in 2016 so now we’re asking you how you’d like to remain.” What!?
Before the Commons defeat the suggestion was that there should be three options: leave with no deal, leave on the PM’s terms, or remain. Except the PM hadn’t agreed the terms of leaving, only what would happen in the Transition. This could also have been designed to split the Leave vote so that Remain had the largest support, albeit a minority as opposed to the previous clear majority for Leave. No doubt a ballot could be rigged to achieve the same effect. The losers in 2016 complained that the question of staying or leaving the EU was too complex for ordinary voters, now they want to ask them again, possibly with an even more complex choice.
Within hours of Parliament’s vote Chancellor Philip Hammond was revealed to have told the leaders of several large businesses that no deal would be taken off the table . These managers have a short-term interest in securing their current positions (and bonuses) rather than the political and economic future of the country. Hammond’s behaviour raises the question of who our ‘representatives’ represent. They should ask our permission before disregarding our instructions (see Resign, You Cowards!)
Civil servants have advised ministers that it would take 14 months to complete a new referendum though others think it could be done in half that time. Whoever is right prolonging the agony will damage our economy, perhaps more than the sharp shock of “crashing out”. Whether for a referendum, a general election or to try to agree changes to the WA, a delay to Brexit now looks very likely. What is equally likely is that we will leave one day, hopefully before the EU crashes and leaves us – in a worse mess than Brexit.
“If it be now, ’tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come – the readiness is all.” William Shakespeare, Hamlet.
Notes and references:
[i] Corbyn voted to leave in 1975, he voted against the Maastricht and Lisbon treaties and on several other occasions. EU rules would prevent him implementing many of his key policies if he ever became prime minister.
 The Economist, 18/1/19: “Brexit, mother of all messes”
The author can see major faults with the EU but is convinced leaving would be ‘catastrophic’: “The referendum gave a clear and legitimate command to leave the EU. To ignore it would be to subvert the will of the people. Yet the people’s representatives in Parliament have made an equally clear and legitimate judgement that Mrs May’s Brexit deal is not in their constituents’ interests. To sideline MPs, as Mrs May has all along tried to do, would be no less a perversion of democracy.” 80% of these representatives were elected on a promise to implement the vote to leave, they are side-lining voters.
 Daily Telegraph, 17/1/19: “German industry ‘looking into the abyss’ as Brexit fears mount”.
Ambrose Evans-Pritchard reported just how serious a no-deal Brexit would be for German industry, already facing recession [https://www.bbc.com/news/business-46875113]. Some 750,000 jobs rely on the UK export market which is Germany’s largest and most profitable.
 Daily Telegraph, 11/1/19: “Hammond tells business chiefs MPs will stop no-deal Brexit”
A recording of a phone call made by the chancellor to the heads of BP, Scottish Power, Siemens and others was leaked to the paper.