Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Tuesday 15 January 2019

Is Norway+ the way forward?

A number of MPs seem to think so. Their argument goes as follows. Although the Withdrawal Agreement (WA) is not about trade (beyond the backstop), and trade is dealt with in the Political Declaration that is not legally binding, a vote for Theresa May’s deal will be taken by her as endorsing her wish for a hard Brexit. In that case parliament should instruct the government to pursue a much softer Brexit now, because it is better to do that now than later (especially if later never happens).

Indeed it is plausible to argue that the current impasse in parliament would not have happened if May had gone for a soft Brexit (something close to BINO: staying in the Customs Union (CU) and Single Market (SM)) from the start. That, it could be argued, was the appropriate thing to do when the vote was so close. Another way of putting the same point is that there may not have been a majority for Leave at all if it had been clear that this involved leaving the CU or SM.

The narrow vote for the Welsh Assembly in 1997 is an interesting example in this context. It was even more narrow (it was won by 50.3%). As a result, according to this thread from Richard Wyn Jones, the winners went out of their way to involve some of the losers in the discussions about how the Welsh Assembly would work. [1] So if May had thought about uniting the country after the 2016 referendum she would have proposed some form of soft Brexit. Instead she tried to unify her party rather than her country, and the rest is history.

Although trying to unite the country would have been the right thing for any good Prime Minister to do (as May will probably find out today), I think the implication that subsequently a soft Brexit would have passed a vote in parliament is less clear. We return again to the critical point that a soft Brexit is not a compromise between a hard Brexit and Remain. Something like BINO is, for Leave voters, worse than Remain, because it gives away sovereignty compared to Remain with nothing gained in return.

Soft Brexit is Brexit in name only, and assuming Article 50 would still have been triggered there would have been two years during which Brexiters would have kept telling us that a soft Brexit is pay and obey with no say. And for once they would have been largely right. For a country as large as the UK, having an external body choose your regulations and trade deals when you have no say in that external body is a big deal. It is the opposite of taking back control. I do not think soft Brexit could have survived public scrutiny over two years.

This has important implications for attempts in parliament to modify the Political Declaration to commit to a soft Brexit before passing the WA. I can see the attraction for many MPs: it would be the same attraction it would have had to a statesmanlike PM after the 2016 vote. But there is a distinct danger that the public will end up hating it. Remainers obviously, but also most Leavers who will feel that they have been cheated by parliament.

If you are one of the MP’s going for this option and think I am wrong, there is an obvious way forward that could get us out of our current impasse. (I first heard this idea from @SimeOnStylites.) Combine your forces with those going for a second referendum in the following way. Propose a referendum between some form of soft Brexit (softer than May’s deal) and Remain. That proposal could command a majority in the house, and would still give people the option of throwing out the idea if they preferred staying in the EU. [2]

[1] This all came to light in a rather amusing way. May included this vote as part of her speech yesterday on why parliament should support her deal. She ‘forgot’ that despite the referendum result the Conservative party - including herself - voted against the Assembly being adopted after the vote! This illustrates why all the talk of the democratic need to respect the 2016 referendum by May and the Brexiters is just an excuse to enact a policy they want. Full story here.

[2] Of course Brexiters will complain, but they will complain just as much if the soft Brexit option is passed in parliament anyway.


  1. “Propose a referendum between some form of soft Brexit (softer than May’s deal) and Remain.”

    So there we have it. Only last week Simon Wren Lewis posted an article which suggested that the 2016 referendum was a badly designed rigged vote (despite the fact that it was designed by Remainers). He is now telling us without a hint of irony that the matter can be resolved by holding a second rigged vote in 2019. The level of hypocrisy and intellectual bankruptcy here is breathtaking!

    Increasing Remainers are calling for a People’s Vote but one when where the people’s choice is restricted so that ‘they don’t get it wrong again’. Let’s be clear. A substantial proportion of people favour Hard Brexit. If Hard Brexit isn’t on the ballot paper then it isn’t a People’s Vote.

    Interestingly our local MP last night asked where next? She, I suspect, voted Remain but she recognised that the majority of her constituents didn’t and that May’s proposal did not address their wish. All the replies she received said go for Hard Brexit, there was even one reply from a Remainer who recognised that the Referendum result should be respected that Hard Brexit was appropriate. I must admit the response surprised me since I had assumed that social media was dominated by Remainers.

    Only recently, Simon Wren Lewis posted an article asking why Leavers thought that a People’s Vote would be undemocratic. Perhaps before he asks other people that question he should answer it himself. If he believes in democracy then he should explain why it would be appropriate to hold a second vote with no Hard Brexit option.

    The reason why Leavers are wary of a People’s Vote is clear. If the referendum had gone the other way, there is no way that there would be a second vote now whatever happened. There is no such thing as asymmetric democracy, so a second vote is essentially antidemocratic. Additionally Leavers do not trust elitist Remainers who such as Simon Wren Lewis who propose holding a rigged vote.

  2. Surely with the mess currently being made in respect of the countries future I wonder if handing sovereignty back to the rabble that sit in the HoC is a sensible thing to do?

  3. From Paul Levine, University of Surrey.

    Of course the notion that a second referendum is fundamentally undemocratic is quite absurd, a point Simon has repeatedly made. But the form of the proposed referendum can expose this absurdity further. The problem with a simple Remain or Leave with whatever deal has been agreed is that a significant number of voters who are so anti-EU as to favour Leave with no deal would feel betrayed. Indeed on democratic grounds they would be justified in doing so.

    So Leave with no deal needs to be a third option. Of course three options with a transferable vote can be on the ballot paper. But a better way is to have two stages: at stage one the question is if we leave do you favour the agreed deal or no deal?; at stage 2 in the light of the result for stage 1 do you favour Remain of Leave?

    The contrast between this stage 2 vote the original referendum could not be more extreme. In the latter case what we were promised (if anything) was a Brexit that would entail all the benefits of a single market without membership (a "cakeist" Brexit actually implied by one of Labour's tests). In my proposal the referendum would carried out in full knowledge what Leave actually entails. And No-Dealers would have their say.

    So what would we expect the outcome to be based on the most recent polls? These seem to be suggesting something like Remain 50+, no deal 40- and a compromise deal such as Norway or customs union up to 10 percentage. So stage 2 is likely to be between Remain and No Deal. One would expect the majority of compromise voters to favour Remain rather than No Deal, so we should end up with a convincing Remain vote without betraying anyone.


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