A three-way vote would be complex and potentially divisive. But if Remainers want a new referendum, this is the only way it could be secured—and could, even, achieve consensusby Chaminda Jayanetti / July 17, 2018 / Leave a comment
Justine Greening’s call for a new referendum on Brexit lit a fresh fire around the self-immolating Conservative government.
The most senior parliamentarian so far to call for a second vote, her intervention gave new impetus to Remainers clinging to hopes of staying in the European Union.
Significantly, she called for a three-way referendum—offering voters a choice of Brexit with whatever deal Theresa May secures, Brexit with no deal, or remaining in the EU.
This potentially serves the interests of both “hard Brexiters” outraged at the Chequers agreement, and “hard Remainers” wanting to stay in the EU rather than settle for a softish Brexit.
However, even were such a referendum to gain widespread parliamentary support, there are numerous practical obstacles to clear.
The timing issue
The most significant problem is timing. Unless the Article 50 period is extended—which requires the consent of EU member states—the UK will leave the EU next March.
In that time, the government would need to pass legislation to enable a referendum, the wording of the question would have to be agreed, and campaign rules would need to be thrashed out. This seems highly unlikely.
But there is another timing issue—what deal will actually be agreed by the time Brexit occurs.
The Withdrawal Agreement under which Britain leaves the EU—which must be reached by next March—merely has to agree the ‘backstop’ arrangements that will kick in if there is no final deal.
The trading arrangements themselves can be thrashed out during the subsequent transition period, set to run from March 2019 to December 2020.
During that time, Britain will maintain the economic status quo, whilst being legally and politically outside the EU.
If a new referendum is held by next March on the Withdrawal Agreement, and the Withdrawal Agreement is just a backstop with little more than a general vision of the final relationship, what are people voting on? Do we ask people to vote on the backstop?
But if the referendum is held on the final deal, during the post-Brexit transition, the anti-Brexit option is no longer Remaining but…
A Remain option is risky in itself—withdrawing Article 50 is believed to require the consent of every other member of the EU. If Britain voted to Remain only for the Slovenian government to block it, what then?
But voting to rejoin the EU having just left is even more riddled with uncertainty.
Once again, every EU member will have a veto over our rejoining—and opinion may be unfavourable to such a sharp U-turn.
But what would rejoining mean? Britain would surely lose its financial rebate. Perhaps the public could live with that.
But what of Schengen and the Euro—two core EU agreements that are likely to be hugely unpopular among British voters, including Remainers? Would Britain be able to renew the opt-outs that it currently enjoys? Could we know either way, during a referendum campaign, in advance of actually negotiating to rejoin?
A Rejoin campaign that could not guarantee British opt-outs from Schengen and the Euro would be doomed to fail.
The complexity of an AV vote
Greening proposes a two-stage vote on the three options, under the Alternative Vote system: voters would mark their first preference, and then their second preference. Assuming none of the three options secured half the vote, the second preferences of voters for the third-placed option would be redistributed among the other two options. The option with the most votes would then win.
Referendums operate under the KISS principle: Keep It Simple, Stupid. Outside Westminster, few pay close attention to politics.
Whilst a three-way AV vote may make logical sense, the casual or occasional voter may not fully understand the voting instructions, especially given the habit-forming familiarity of parliamentary elections.
There is greater potential for unintentionally spoiled ballots and discounted votes. There is also much greater potential for arguments about wording.
A roadblock to consensus
Can a second referendum straddle the great chasm in British politics? By replacing the head-to-head nature of the first referendum with a three-way choice including a “middle ground,” Greening’s proposal rests not on a winner-takes-all majority, but a more consensual plurality. Only a minority would get what they really wanted, but a majority would get something they could live with.
Alas, as ever with Brexit, it’s not so simple. The assumption would be that enough Leavers and Remainers would cast their second preference for May’s deal, which would win under AV.
But such a referendum would be hugely unpredictable. If the “deal Brexit” came third, its second-preferences would be redistributed, leaving either No Deal or Remain/Rejoin as the winner.
This would leave one side ecstatic and the other totally alienated.
A potential solution
Perhaps we can fix this. Instead of redistributing the second preferences of the third-placed option, we could redistribute all second preferences.
Given that a Deal Brexit would pick up support from both Remainers and Leavers, it would make such an outcome more likely—dashing the hopes of hard Remainers, but ensuring that one of the all-out options would need a higher threshold of support in order to win.
In other words, consensus. Perhaps.
A poison pill?
The practical and political barriers to a new referendum remain huge. Quite apart from those listed above, the government fears it would weaken its already feeble bargaining position with the EU.
On the other hand, the prospect of a public vote might make hard Brexiters less determined to wreck the progress of a Brexit deal in the Commons.
In truth, nothing can be predicted. Which is why some Remainers would be aghast at the prospect of putting a suicidal no-deal Brexit on the ballot.
The public could easily vote for a situation that would leave Britain without the means to function as a society and tear apart its territorial unity.
But if Remainers want a new referendum, this is the only way it could be secured—there simply aren’t enough people who want a Deal versus Remain vote.
Anti-Brexiters would have to run a far better campaign than before—no Will Straw—and make a huge pitch for younger voters. It would be winnable—but yes, also losable. The public could vote for a nuclear Brexit. That’s democracy.
And while it may comfort us to pretend otherwise, democratic societies ultimately get the governance they deserve.