Why you should care
Because let’s be honest, a second Brexit vote is not going to settle this matter.
In case you haven’t noticed, the U.K. is in a bit of a pickle. You have to feel for Prime Minister Theresa May — she doesn’t really have a good way out of this mess, other than going the way of her predecessor and throwing in the proverbial towel.
Assuming the Brexit deal she negotiated with the EU doesn’t get through Parliament — and, barring a miracle, it won’t — then she has four options: 1) Grit her teeth and prepare for a no-deal Brexit; 2) Head back to Brussels (again) to try to re-re-negotiate, probably being forced to start from scratch; 3) Dissolve Parliament and risk her position in No. 10 with a new general election; or 4) Ask the electorate to see if they’re still on board with a Brexit Referendum 2.0, or what starry-eyed Remainers call a “People’s Vote.”
Of course, we might end up with a few of these options happening at once and, given the fragility of May’s position, her hand could be forced into any of them by Parliament, her Cabinet or by an angry mob with flaming torches.
Trouble is, none of the four options is any good. A no-deal Brexit could cause economic catastrophe and short-term shortages of food and medicine. Renegotiation could take years and achieve nothing. A general election could kick the Conservatives out of office and install a hard-left government — or, God forbid, another hung Parliament that prolongs the uncertainty. And then there’s the People’s Vote, which a majority of Brits apparently now support, according to a poll of 20,000 conducted by Survation for Channel 4.
But we mustn’t kid ourselves — a second referendum would solve nothing. If Leave were to win again, we’d still be stuck choosing between a bad deal and no deal. And if Remainers win, half the country would rightfully feel cheated after their hard-won political victory of 2016 — the largest democratic exercise in British history — was essentially brushed under the carpet. So instead of arguing between the least bad of four terrible options, here’s a fifth option: Let’s have not one, but two more referendums, to make this a best two-out-of-three thing.
The people calling for a second referendum are the people who didn’t like the result of the first one.
Matthew Elliott, former chief executive, Vote Leave
Hear me out. The U.K. would have to delay its planned withdrawal from the EU by a year or so (at this rate, it probably will have to do this anyway), and then plan another referendum in, say, March, asking the straight leave-or-remain question again. It would be predetermined that a third referendum would be scheduled six months later — if Leave won BrexRef2, then BrexRef3 would decide between leaving according to May’s deal and no deal. But if Remain won BrexRef2, then the final act of this saga would be a third leave-or-remain vote, identical to the past two. A decider, so to say, or a penalty shoot-out.
I’m not the first to suggest this. Last week, pro-Brexit International Trade Minister Liam Fox said in a TV interview that “supposing the Remain side won [a second referendum], … people like me will be immediately demanding it’s best of three.”
He’s right. Though it seems in general that slightly more of the British public now favors remaining in the EU, the polls said the same thing before the 2016 vote, so it’s not entirely clear who would win the second time around. A new vote would essentially leave the country just as divided. “The people calling for a second referendum are the people who didn’t like the result of the first one,” says Matthew Elliott, former chief executive of the Vote Leave campaign. And if a re-vote should fall for Remain, the millions of Leave voters in 2016 would have more than enough reason to think that the political elite had decided that their voices shouldn’t be heard. Perhaps more dangerous than the current uncertainty, says Matthew Flinders, a politics professor at the University of Sheffield, is the possibility of a second referendum silencing the voices of Leave voters, leaving “a dangerously fragmented society that would become vulnerable to ideologues.”
So how are three referendums any better? Well, not only because all the other options appear to be nonstarters. But also because the slim 52-to-48 Brexit vote in 2016 remains dogged by allegations of impropriety — alleged Russian interference, overspending by the Leave campaign and claims that the electorate didn’t really understand the options on the table. Elliott refutes these suggestions. The Leave campaign was clear about what Brexit would involve throughout, he argues, and electoral law violations by Leave should be seen in the context of the Remain side also being fined (albeit smaller amounts). “A lot of the inquiries by the Electoral Commission have really been driven by Remain campaigners determined to get another referendum,” Elliott says. Nevertheless, doubts remain in the minds of the electorate — and a comprehensive round of two more plebiscites could put those issues to bed for good.
Of course, the plan is not foolproof. Referenda are expensive and time-consuming — so this is hardly a quick fix. And “referendum fatigue” becomes a real issue, says Flinders. At the heart of the matter is a constitutional tussle between direct and representative democracy — given the complexity of the issues at hand, maybe we should leave it to the policy wonks to figure out, rather than staking the future of the country on the whims of public opinion. (Though I’d suggest we’re already in too deep there, courtesy of David Cameron).
Flinders has an immodest proposal of his own: a Citizen’s Assembly of a hundred or so representative, randomly selected members of the public who can study the issue in depth and make a suggestion in a second referendum — a sort of hybrid between representative and direct democracy. It’s a solution that has gained some traction in recent weeks, from a bizarre coalition of supporters including the frontman of rock band Gorillaz and the former archbishop of Canterbury.
So what happens next? Parliament is due to vote on May’s exit agreement in mid-January, and if MPs reject it, then we’re likely to see a vote of no confidence followed by “complete chaos,” says Flinders. While I was clearly wrong in claiming 18 months ago that May’s position was “immediately untenable,” my advice to her is to assume three’s a charm. If she asks the country its opinion once again, she needs to plan for a decider too.