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A second referendum is a dangerous distraction to the real action

November 24th, 2018

Brexit is not in trouble because of the lack of a mandate

Brexit Day is now just 125 days away, or less than 18 weeks, if you prefer (and of those, you can discount Christmas). The extent of the discussion of a second referendum is therefore a measure of the desperation of both those who want to stop Brexit and those dissatisfied with how it’s going.

That desperation is understandable. Brexit – in a legal sense – now looks a lot closer with the publication of the Withdrawal Agreement and for many on both sides of the fence, doesn’t look a happy prospect to the extent that several Leave-backing MPs have claimed that they’d rather remain than leave on these terms – though interestingly, they’ve not said whether they’d rather leave without any deal than remain.

What’s remarkable though is the amount of faith being stored up in the idea of a second referendum (or People’s Vote, if you’re so inclined). It’s remarkable because a referendum is a process, not a solution. There is little that it could do that parliament could not do now. Certainly, public backing would greatly strengthen the hands of those who might prefer a different course but what it can’t do is magic up new solutions. The options remain Deal / No Deal / No Brexit.

In fact, a referendum would get in the way of creating an alternative deal. It might be unlikely that the EU would make substantial changes to the Agreement now but those chances dwindle to zero if there’s a public vote simultaneously ongoing without that new Agreement as part of it. Any public vote would freeze the process in both Brussels and London, other than the ticking down of the clock.

Of course, it is possible that Article 50 might be extended, though that requires unanimous support from the other 27 members; something which might not come without a price attached. It also requires a change to the Withdrawal Act, though presumably that could be done as part of the passage of any Referendum Act. It’s also possible that Remain might not be an option under EU law: something we may find out before the end of next week.

Suppose it is though. Suppose also that the legislation for a new referendum could be agreed by parliament within a month (which is a pretty heroic assumption given that the legislation for the first vote took six months to work its way into law). Do we really believe that the public debate would be of any higher quality than last time? We might have the Withdrawal text in front of us but there’d be greatly differing interpretations as to what it means. Likewise, the wilder predictions of what would happen after the Deal (vassalage), No Deal (economic calamity), or Remain (the destruction of British democracy), would drown out any attempt at nuanced interpretations. Indeed, there’d be nothing to stop No Deal re-running the “£350m a week for the NHS” campaign.

Is this something really worth devoting the majority of the remaining time left to? Perhaps, if it really could give a decisive opinion on the route the country should take – but it wouldn’t.

Two polls last week demonstrate the problem. Survation found that in a three-way referendum, the result would be:

Remain 43
No Deal 28
Deal 16
Don’t Know 13

If we ignore the Don’t Knows (and we usually do), then Remain would almost certainly win on transfers from Dealers, despite the two forms of Leave just having a 44-43 advantage. (Though it has to be said that in answer to a different question in the survey, with just Remain/Leave as options, Remain won 50-45).

The figures from Opinium are even less clear. In that, the responses were:

Remain 32
No Deal 24
Deal 21
Don’t Know 23

That gives a sufficiently stronger combined Leave lead that after a 72-28 split to No Deal among Dealers, implies a final result of 39-37 to No Deal.

In other words, those who seek a second referendum in order to finesse Britain remaining within the EU not only have to contend with multiple legal obstacles, a timetable that probably doesn’t fit, a Hard Brexit campaign which is likely to be as aggressive and as loose with facts as last time, but also has to face the possibility that it could hand a huge public mandate to those who want the precise opposite – a No Deal outcome from which it would be extremely possible for any government to extract the country.

Both of the surveys quoted above also provide graphic evidence of why the government will do everything possible to avoid another referendum. Its preferred course is, obviously, the deal. There is, admittedly, a huge difference between the two sets of figures, with Deal trailing Remain by 11 points with Opinium but by fully 37 points with Survation. In both polls, Deal came last. The only ray of hope for May is that in a Deal/No Deal vote, Survation gave No Deal the win by only 34-32 (with 34% going for Don’t Know).

What’s more, in a referendum, Deal would likely suffer the same fate that ‘Yes to AV’ did in 2011, but on a much bigger scale: hardly anyone actually wants it, whereas the activists for the other options will be many and will be fired up. The dynamics of a referendum campaign are likely to be that Deal would be squeezed even further.

Why would the PM put herself in a position where she would be humiliated, where she would probably have to resign if she lost, and with the country heading leaderless into either a No Deal situation it is woefully underprepared for, or to remain, so apparently betraying the preference of the great majority of Tory voters and activists?

The simple answer is that she wouldn’t. Labour, a minor party or individual MPs might move an amendment to a motion to try to get parliament’s backing for a referendum in principle, and might even succeed. Such a motion, however, wouldn’t be binding and while it might put the government in a tricky spot politically, it could still be ignored with any number of practical reasons given – most obviously the lack of time and that it’s either a referendum or an amended deal and the government is seeking the latter. It is, after all, in Theresa May’s style to brush off bad news and pressure and just keep ploughing on. Assuming her Party lets her, that’s just what I expect her to do.

David Herdson