There are three options for Britain ahead of the March 29th deadline to leave the European Union: Brexit without a deal, Brexit with a version of the prime minister’s deal or not leaving the EU at all. Most of those arguing that Britain should not leave propose a second referendum rather than withdrawing Article 50, the legal mechanism by which a country leaves the EU. But a second referendum would be far from simple and, in many respects, it is profoundly problematic.
Although the referendum result in June 2016 was reasonably close, it was clear and turnout was high. The leaders of all factions on both sides of the campaign promised that the popular decision would be delivered, whatever it was. And yet, since then some people have set out to reverse it.
The second referendum is disingenuously termed a “People’s Vote”, whereas it is envisaged by many as a re-run of the last referendum—in which people also voted. After the vote in 2016, both the Conservatives and Labour committed to delivering Brexit in a subsequent general election in 2017. At the time, the parties backing Brexit won over 84% of votes. The only national party committed to a new referendum, the Liberal Democrats, actually saw their share of the vote decline.
So far, Prime Minister Theresa May is implacably against a second referendum. Without support from the government, it’s hard to see how a referendum becomes law. Senior Tory backbenchers on the Remain side, such as Nick Herbert or Nicky Morgan, are also opposed. Only around a dozen Conservatives actually back it.
Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour Party leader, has flirted with a second referendum but not yet endorsed it. Len McCluskey, Unite Union’s influential leader, is strongly against it. Although Labour’s membership is keen, the party’s strategists recognise that to secure a majority in an election, Labour must target seats which voted “Leave” in 2016. If there were a second referendum, would Labour back Remain, or—as some in the shadow Cabinet have argued—Labour’s Brexit deal (whatever that is)?
With just 11 weeks until Britain’s legal exit date, a referendum would require an extension of the Article 50 EU exit process. All 27 EU member states would have to agree, as several months would be required to put in place legislation, to allow the question to be tested and to conduct the campaign itself.
Those backing a new referendum justify it by arguing that the details of Brexit are now clearer. It is true that terms like “customs union” have entered Britain’s political lexicon. But a quick glance at the current Brexit debate on all sides suggests that there is still plenty of misunderstanding.
A BBC panjandrum told me that in a second referendum both sides ought to agree not to stretch the truth. It seems obvious that the opposite would happen. Remain backers are already proposing spending money saved by avoiding the cost of “no deal” on giveaways, while “no deal” backers are offering up tax cuts funded by avoiding the costs of what they call the Brexit divorce bill. A second referendum will be a festival of fantasy politics.
Others suggest that a re-run is justified because new facts have come to light. Yet as a one-time senior staffer to David Cameron, the former prime minister, admitted to me, there are no new facts. For example, it is claimed that the Irish border wasn’t discussed during the 2016 referendum. But on June 9th 2016 Tony Blair and John Major made a joint appearance at Ulster University warning that Brexit risked closing the border.
Moreover if there were a second referendum, what would the question be? Given that the 2016 referendum answered the question of leaving, a reasonable ballot question might ask: “Do you want to leave with the prime minister’s deal or leave without a deal?” But most proponents are seeking a route to block Brexit. Justine Greening MP proposes that electors should rank three options (No Deal, Deal, No Brexit) with second preferences to be re-allocated. Others prefer a model of consecutive rounds, such as that used in Newfoundland in 1948. There’s little agreement.
Who would vote in a second referendum? Former deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, has absurdly argued that young people should vote twice, calling into question the very foundation of democracy: one person, one vote. Others want EU nationals and 16- and 17-year-olds to take part. Politics are already fractious in Britain (as they are across much of the West). Imagine a narrow Remain victory in a second referendum, where turnout was far lower and people concluded that the vote had been manipulated.
Those arguing for a second referendum tend to assume that they would win it. But that’s far from guaranteed. Despite the three-year-long Groundhog Day debate in Britain over whether we should or shouldn’t leave, few people have actually changed their minds. Although Mrs May is widely believed to have made a mess of the Brexit negotiations, there’s little actual love for Brussels in Britain. And in a second referendum, the pro-Brexit side would have new ammunition: Leave could all too easily paint a picture of a Blairite elite refusing to listen to the people.
Above all, a second referendum would be profoundly divisive, exacerbating the culture wars which have opened up in Britain. It would turn the clock back but also risk turning people against politics and politicians altogether. As for many people, Brexit divided my friends and my family. There’s now a chance to move on. The prime minister’s deal is no one’s first choice, but it’s a reasonable compromise. Britain needs to put the question of leaving behind it.
Henry Newman is the director of Open Europe, a non-partisan policy think-tank based in London and Brussels.