Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Saturday 5 October 2019

Should a second referendum happen before the General Election and what should accompany Remain on the ballot?

Some have suggested that an interim abC Prime Minister (abC = anyone but Corbyn), appointed by parliament after dismissing Johnson in a vote of no confidence, should hold a second referendum before a General Election. If the idea of this is to end the Brexit issue before an election, I think it is misguided for one simple reason. Johnson is likely to boycott the referendum.

The reason is straightforward. Brexit is the issue that could win him the General Election. If the polls are correct and he captures most of the Brexit vote, but the Remain vote is split between Labour and the LibDems, then he gets to form a government with an overall majority for the next five years. I know there are reasons why that might fail, but it is the centre of his strategy. The alternative where he gambles on winning a referendum looks worse odds for him.

The best this strategy could achieve from a Remain point of view is a victory and revoking Article 50. But Johnson would then talk about how the winners of the 2016 referendum have been cheated by an unelected PM and an illegitimate second referendum, which would ensure this claim became the major issue in the subsequent General Election. It would help Johnson win, and he would promptly start Article 50 all over again. All that would have been gained is a delay in what was now an inevitable Brexit.

For this reason the strategy of a referendum before a General Election looks flawed. Of course if Johnson gets an overall majority in a General Election there will be no referendum. So there appear to be two possibilities in which a second referendum could happen. The first is a Labour government (perhaps with the support of the SNP). Here we know what will happen: Labour will negotiate its own deal and hold a referendum where that is the Leave option, and Remain is the alternative. As the referendum would be boycotted by Farage and the Conservatives, Remain would win. 

The second is a minority government where the smaller parties hold the balance of power. This in itself does not guarantee a second referendum, because pretty well all Conservative MPs would vote against it, as might the DUP and some Labour rebels. But if there is a majority of MPs in favour of a referendum, what is the alternative to Remain that they should choose?

Once again a key question is whether the Conservatives would participate. If the Leave alternative was May’s Deal the answer would almost certainly be no. So some may be tempted to choose No Deal as the alternative in order to get the Conservatives to participate. It would be argued that only a second referendum where No Deal was an option would have legitimacy.

We need to unpack what is meant by legitimacy here. The justification for the second referendum is that it is a natural consequence of the first. The first referendum did not specify the form of leaving, and because the result was close it is far from clear that there is any majority for a particular way of leaving the EU. This is what parliament has found: although both parties were prepared to leave, the deals they had in mind were very different, and neither was prepared to accept the others.

This is the answer to the perennial point made by leavers: if not two why not a third? If the second is designed to check there is a majority for a specific form of leaving, chosen by parliament following the first referendum as the best form of leaving, then a third makes no sense. The second referendum is not a rerun of the first, but a consequence of the first.

If we see a second referendum in this light, then it seems clear that the form of leaving that should be on the ballot is some form of deal with the EU. The case for Leaving put forward in the first referendum was all about the deal which the UK would obtain. Leavers never suggested that the UK might not be able to obtain a deal. If the Remain side occasionally did so that is irrelevant, because those suggestions were dismissed by the Leave side as Project Fear and Leave won. So the only mandate the 2016 referendum gives is to Leave with some form of deal, and therefore a Remain/No Deal option would not be a legitimate consequence of the first referendum..

I think this is not the legitimacy that people who suggest No Deal should be on the ballot have in mind. What they mean is that Farage and Johnson would agree to participate and respect the result if No Deal was on the ballot. Here I think people are making the same mistake as Cameron made in offering the first referendum. Cameron’s dream that his 2016 referendum, if won by Remain, would end calls to Leave for a generation were never going to come true, as some Leavers made clear before the result.

The period from 2016 until now has shown us that the No Deal virus has infected not just the Brexit party but also Conservative party members and therefore the Conservative party itself. Because of the influence that Farage and the Brexit press have on voters and Conservative party members, Brexit is not going to be put in a box any time soon.

So would Johnson agree to participate in a No Deal vs Remain referendum? He would have the perfect excuse not to. He has always argued that he could get a good deal out of the EU if only the threat of No Deal was real. It is nonsense, but he gets away with it. So he would say that the only way to achieve a good Brexit deal is to elect a Conservative government with an overall majority prepared to implement No Deal so he can get that good deal. Minority governments are unstable and so his chances that would happen still exist, if only voters would give him an overall majority.

Agreeing to a second referendum would also weaken one of the Brexiters strongest rhetorical cards: 2016 gave the government an instruction to leave which it promised to fulfill. Once Johnson agrees to participate in a second referendum he legitimises it, and so that rhetorical card is one he cannot use again. Another factor is that if Johnson did say yes to a second referendum, Farage would say any second referendum is illegitimate, allowing him to sweep up Brexit votes from the Conservatives if Remain wins the second referendum.

So I suspect we reach the following position: Johnson will only participate in a No Deal/Remain referendum if he is pretty sure he can win. Which is an excellent reason not to hold such a referendum. Again we need to remember a fundamental lesson. Choosing referendums that appease opponents can come back to haunt you later.

I therefore think it is wise that any second referendum should either involve a new deal negotiated by Labour, or May’s deal. But it is almost certain this referendum would be boycotted by the Conservatives and Farage, so the referendum is not going to make Brexit disappear for a generation. It might end the Article 50 process, but that process could be started up again by a Conservative government with an overall majority at any time, using the 2016 referendum as a mandate. Brexit is now in the DNA of the Conservative party, and no referendum will make them give up.

If you are a Remainer, this has profound implications for UK politics over the next decade. A second referendum wins the crucial battle to end the current A50 process, but it does not end the war. If the Conservative party were to ever win an overall majority, the whole process would begin again. I have suggested before that the only thing that will be sure to end Brexit for good is demographic change and a long period of Conservative opposition until their final realisation that Brexit and power cannot go together.

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