In this short blog post I will try to convince you of two arguments that will seem at the outset completely counter-intuitive: first, the logical position of many Leave supporters should be to support a second EU referendum; second, that this referendum should contain three options. Let me explain.
Last night on Moral Maze I interviewed the avuncular and eloquent chair of the Leave means Leave campaign, Richard Tice. When I made the following assertion he agreed. To paraphrase, I said "next year won’t the country be faced with a choice between two options; an Article 50 deal largely imposed on us by the EU or leaving completely on WTO terms?" Mr Tice was very clear. In the view of his campaign the deal the Government seems to be edging towards – some form of customs union involving the UK accepting a great deal of EU regulation - would fail to implement the 2016 referendum result. This is a view which is widely held including on the Conservative backbenches and, I suspect, in the editorial offices of at least two national newspapers. The obvious question is this; if there are two very different leave options with very different implications who should decide which to choose?
For remain supporters (like me) one of the few upsides of leaving the EU is that it might heal the long-standing wounds generated by deep disagreements about Europe and, more importantly still, enable those people who voted Leave to feel that they had been listened to and obeyed. But Mr Tice made pretty clear that, were we to leave on the only terms the EU is likely to agree, not only would his camp feel we had a lot further to go to achieve UK sovereignty but also that Leave voters should rightly feel betrayed.
We are therefore likely next year to have three viable policy options:
a) a request to rescind Article 50 so that the UK stays in the EU;
b) support the deal agreed by the Government and the EU;
c) reject the deal and leave on WTO terms.
On this basis there is surely an argument for a three option referendum. If this used a transferable vote system, voters would in effect have nine choices. They could vote for each option alone or for any option plus a second choice from the two others. In case this seems unfeasible, it is worth knowing that multiple-option policy referenda have been used in Sweden, Switzerland, Australia and many US states.
Remain supporters are likely to support such a referendum hoping the country would change its mind. But the intriguing implication of Mr Tice’s position is that he and his campaign should also support such a referendum, as it may be the only way to get the outcome they want. Finally, the Government too might want such a referendum because if they win it (with a transferable vote the middle option has an advantage), they might head off an ongoing campaign against the deal, a campaign which would threaten to continue the Conservatives’ thirty year internal war over Europe.
Many people have bemoaned the national split which was exacerbated by the 2016 vote and has arguably got worse since. But in a three option referendum (with nine possible ways of voting) the sides could become more fluid. Some people might say ‘WTO terms or nothing’ but others might, for example, say ‘I want a total exit but if we are going to continue to have a relationship with the EU I’d rather we were in, arguing for reform, than simply taking rules agreed by others’. Furthermore, the transferable vote would mean the winning option would probably end up with a significant majority once first and second choices had been added.
A second referendum with three options would reflect the real choices our country faces. It could have support from all sides of the debate. It would enable people individually and collectively to adopt more nuanced, less polarised, positions. Of course, there would be complications; nothing is perfect. But isn’t this imaginative solution better than the increasingly likely alternative; that we cease to be a member of the European Union but on terms rejected by a large proportion of those who voted Leave?