Following former Brexit supremo Dominic Raab’s revelation that he views the current EU/UK deal he partly negotiated as worse than staying in the EU, join Director of Economy Asheem Singh in a Friday thought experiment.
The fundamental problem with a second EU referendum, or ‘Peoples’ Vote’ has always been the existence of three options: remain, the UK/EU deal, and a harder or cleaner Brexit.
This is a problem for at least two reasons. First, three-option-referenda are very rare, in part because their outcome is so strongly influenced by electoral methodology. Psephological modelling shows that in a situation with exactly the same votes cast for each side, three different winners might emerge depending on what the voting system is. If it is ‘single vote winner takes all,’ it goes one way, ‘single transferable vote’ it goes another, ‘aggregated preference voting’ it goes another.
Secondly, even if a system was agreed or imposed the question remains: who gets to define the third option? Is it the ERG group’s hard Brexit, or the Conservative backbenchers who favour Canada ++++, or a ‘shoot the moon’ option: the supposed possibility of getting a better deal on any terms as a result of rejecting what is now on the table.
It is almost certain that we would need a third ‘sufficiently clean Brexit’ option in any so-called ‘Peoples’ Vote.’ For the danger is that a second referendum excluding such an option (or with that option defined in a way unacceptable to the relevant Brexiteers) would lead to a high level of angry abstention.
Getting that third option sufficiently clean may be an impossible task. The right wing of the Conservative Party especially is notoriously unbiddable. But whatever we think of the scenarios for a relationship with Europe, no one wants an outcome in which a significant proportion of the UK population - some of whom have many other reasons to be alienated – give up on democracy.
Whatever the detail, it appears at this moment in time unlikely that this clean/hard option would fare well. Both the credibility of a no-deal or ‘cleaner’ Brexit and public support for it is falling away. At the same time, Brexiteers are split on tactics and seem to have shot their bolt in their movement against the Prime Minister. The mainstream media is becoming noticeably more sceptical in its coverage of their case. This is in part a function of the implacable stance of the EU on offering a ‘better’ deal. It is in part to do with timing - it is unfeasible to renegotiate another deal and there isn’t the time to prepare for a no-deal break or to put the mechanics in place to give us more time. In politics timing can be everything.
a grand pivot?
If this logic is accepted then a second referendum only becomes viable when there are effectively only two options – the proposed deal or Remain. Even in this scenario there is a question about the terms on which the EU would allow us to reverse Article 50. It was for a long time likely that there would be strong pressure on European leaders to allow the UK to return on its previous terms including its rebate and opt-outs.
Is this still the case? We can only speculate, but I suspect not.
We return to the idea of political timing. The lines of argument suggest that the conditions are now in place for one major intervention to fundamentally shift the debate - and with it the destiny of the nation.
This intervention would be a speech by a prominent Brexit supporter with the following core construction: a grand pivot in the national interest of the order of which the Conservative Party for centuries unified and reinvented itself – and made it Europe’s most successful political party. It would go something like this.
- I believe in Brexit and I believe that the option of UK independence should always be available to us. Therefore, whatever happens now we as a country must put the preparation in place to enable us to take back control at some point in the future. Such preparation is a matter of national self-interest and pride. We would encourage other European countries to do the same thing as, at the least, it will mean the EU knows nations have an alternative.
- However, it is now clear that given the situation the Government has placed us in (one I have constantly urged them to avoid) there is neither a majority (in the country or the House) for a hard Brexit nor a viable and timely route to a substantive renegotiation with the EU.
- Tragically, therefore the choice is between the deal, years of being continually out-negotiated by the EU and having not only to accept existing EU rules but even new ones which we will have no role in making; or Remain.
- If we Remain we must pursue two strategies. First, putting in place a set of measures that limit the impact on us of EU rules, particularly free movement through further tightening of migrant work and income requirements and the introduction of a comprehensive ID card scheme. Second, working determinedly with our allies to shape the kind of EU that is acceptable to us and in line with our national values and interests.
- Therefore, with a heavy heart but with complete confidence in the capacity of the UK (with the right leadership) to either define Europe’s future or to one day to go it alone on our own terms, I announce today that I now support a second referendum and that in this referendum – between this disastrous humiliating deal and rescinding Article 50 I will be campaigning for Remain.
Cometh the hour, cometh the (wo)man?