I wrote in January about the “unanswerable case” for a referendum on the Withdrawal Agreement (it is not a second referendum but nor is it a referendum on the final deal), and I have not changed my mind in the slightest. To say such a referendum would not be democratic is self-contradictory. I personally would be happy for parliament alone to call a halt to Brexit, but if MPs believe that to do so would be seen as undemocratic then we have to have a referendum on the Withdrawal Agreement (WA).
Does it bother me that this will not be a referendum on the final deal, because the WA is likely to be vague on the final trade arrangement? No, for two reasons. First a referendum on the final deal will be meaningless because we will have already left (something which I do think is undemocratic). Second, we now have a huge amount of information compared to 2016.
We now know that there are essentially two types of deal with the EU we can do. The first is some kind of FTA (free trade agreement), where Northern Ireland would stay in the Single Market for goods and Customs Union (the Irish backstop). Theresa May says that is something no Prime Minister could agree to, but more worrying from my point of view is that we would be a lot poorer as a result because we would do less trade with the EU and many of the third countries that currently have trade agreements with the EU. Those who tell you that getting our own trade deals with those third countries would be a piece of cake are the same people who told you that we held all the cards with the EU.
The second option is that we stay in the Single Market and Customs Union, but have little say in how those emerge. That avoids the need to implement the Irish backstop, which is why it will be the most likely option that May will agree to in the end. The economic hit from that would be much smaller than the first option, but we end up with substantially less sovereignty than if we stayed in. May would like to persuade the EU to leave open the idea of extending the backstop to the whole of the UK, meaning we stay in the CU and SM for goods only, but I think the chances of the EU agreeing to this at the end of the day are slim, and as geography is as important to services as goods we would be worse off as a result.
This choice was not clear to even experts at the time of the referendum, and it was certainly not clear to voters. The campaign hardly mentioned Ireland (and when it did, it did not imagine a backstop), and voters were told there would be more money for the NHS (there will be less), Turkey was about to join (it is not), EU immigration hurt the public finances (it does the opposite), we held all the cards in any negotiation etc. The Remain side may have exaggerated the immediate economic hit, but two years later GDP is around 2% lower as a result of the uncertainty created by Brexit and the fall in Sterling has in addition cost each household an average of £400 per year. That is fact not Project Fear.
So the case for a referendum on the WA is overwhelming, given all the extra information we have. That nearly all this information has been negative for Brexit is reflected in the polls. So what should the referendum question be? I do not think No Deal should be an option. No one seriously campaigned for No Deal in the first referendum, and only a minority of Conservative MPs (60?) support it. The obvious question to ask is do you want to accept the WA negotiated or do you want to Remain in the EU. This does not disrespect the original referendum vote any more than the 2017 general election disrespected the 2015 one.
John McDonnell on the Today programme yesterday (here, 2:10 hours in) seemed to suggest a question like do you accept the WA, yes or no? Some took the 'no' as implying No Deal, but I doubt that as Labour would be campaigning for no and have already said No Deal is not an option. Instead it would be a suggestion to reopen negotiations. But if Labour cannot force a General Election, and with May saying this is the best deal she can get, what is the point? If you think a no result would put pressure on the EU, see what happened after the Greek referendum in 2015. I think many voters would realise this, and just vote for the WA to speed the end of the paralysis in government that Brexit had created.
Not only does his suggestion make little sense, but it was politically disastrous, given the overwhelming support for a referendum that included the Remain option among Labour voters and members. Just after a composite motion had been agreed which is itself a compromise between Remain members and the leadership, he appears to undercut it at a stroke. The words he should have said came from Starmer later in the day.
So the referendum on the WA should be a simple choice between accepting the WA as negotiated or cancelling Article 50 and remaining in the EU. What about all those working class Labour voters in the towns of England and Wales who will feel betrayed if we stay in the EU? Those people were sold snake-oil, and you do not expose snake-oil by prescribing it on the NHS. Instead you make sure you enact policies that reduce the demand for snake-oil, and hopefully that is what a future Labour government will do.