About a second referendum

Roland Smith
Jan 21, 2017 · 9 min read

You may have noticed that a number of people who supported Remain don’t accept the result and maintain a hope that the UK might not leave the EU after all. Or, if/when the UK does leave the EU, that we might quickly rejoin. I’ll call these people “Reversers”.

It is worth saying straight away that this appears to be a minority viewpoint. A Yougov poll in November 2016 suggested that 68% of all voters now think Britain should go ahead with Brexit and 59% of the public think that calls for a second referendum are illegitimate.

But while one can argue that this viewpoint is wrong because it ignores the expressed will of the people on 23rd June, an objection pitched like this somehow doesn’t seem enough.

Maybe we actually need to work this idea through.

I’m going to immediately discount the whole “referendum was only advisory” exclamation which, while legally true, is a political non starter.

So to begin, there first needs to be a majority in the House of Commons for calling a second referendum. That seems a long way off, with a large majority of MPs against the idea. The governing majority of Conservatives in the Commons and their potential for an even bigger majority in the event of a General Election would seem to weigh against a second referendum getting anywhere.

Such a reversal also (currently) lacks a motivating backdrop i.e. an excuse. The Reverser lobby recognises this and is manoeuvring on the basis that the backdrop might change as a result of an approaching (or a future “recently-passed”) moment of Brexit. And if it does change, that any deteriorating backdrop would be explicitly linked to Brexit in the public mind.

But let’s glide past all those hurdles and take the Reverser logic at face value — that a “favourable” (to them) backdrop will present itself because, as they see it, Brexit will be catastrophic enough to create such a backdrop. At that moment, so the logic goes, the public will think twice about their decision on 23rd June. Politicians, as followers of public opinion, will then start softening on Brexit. This is seen as happening at the end of the two year period for Article 50 negotiations.

Set aside your own feelings on the whole subject of Brexit, one has to admit that there is method in the Reversers’ logic so far.

So let’s take this further.

First, consider the scenario whereby the two parties — the EU and the UK — break up the Article 50 negotiations after 18 months and declare that the talks on developing a new relationship have totally failed [I paint this scenario solely to try and find a way that Reversers might gain a foothold]. The EU then takes a hardline stance and a number of politicians including the long-serving German Chancellor Angela Merkel makes clear in a “take-it-or-leave-it” fashion that there are now only three options for Britain:

  • Remain in the EU
  • Take up an EEA position rather like Norway
  • Fall out of the EU to WTO rules (The “WTO Option”)

The EU may further hint that “Britain as a whole might want to take the next few months to consider which way it wants to jump”. In other words, a barely-concealed suggestion that there should be a ‘try again’ second referendum in the UK, as happened in several other EU states before us.

The Reversers will naturally rush to the first of the three options — to Remain. The hardcore Leavers will rush to the third, while the rest of the spectrum will urge the second one as a compromise, which of course the Reversers will turn into “we may as well stay in the EU and at least have a say”. And hardcore Leavers will cast it as “not really leaving at all — betrayal!”

The government will have to navigate through this political minefield and choose.

But consider the backdrop to this situation: yet more shrill headlines on all sides; the Leave-leaning media screaming about “It’s Merkel versus Britain”; maybe a few UK companies saying they have had enough and getting headlines for it; potentially fluctuating money markets — in other words, a further entrenchment of positions at the extremes of the debate and a “rising temperature”. And all this after almost two years of heated wrangling since the Leave vote.

The public will be probably downright weary of it.

“Great”, think the Reversers at this point, “the public just want to end all the arguments and heart-ache and get back to normality”.

The trouble is there would be no normality at this stage. The government could therefore do a number of things:

  1. Agree the negotiations have failed “but we won’t be bullied by the EU so we’re going for the WTO Option”. The problem is that this will create ever more hysteria and will start a level of economic disruption. The much-needed backdrop for the Reversers would begin to emerge under these circumstances.
  2. Go for the “compromise” EEA option. There will be irritation about this at both extremes of the debate but the anger/fear that’s generated in those quarters would by this stage probably never reach the same levels as it would for the anti-WTO Option side in scenario 1. Especially if sold properly.
  3. Declare that “we cannot leave the EU because the impact of exit is just too severe”. The implications of this would be stark. It would become instantly clear that somehow and at some time we reached a point in our EU membership where there was no escape. A prison. And no one told us.

We surely have to rule out scenario 3. I can see no government attempting a return to the status quo ante “after all that’s been said and done” over many years. Nor can I imagine a UK government, especially a Conservative one under Theresa May, holding a referendum to essentially ratify a decision to stay in the EU.

That leaves us with Scenarios 1 and 2.

For the Reversers to get their way, I think they would lobby against Scenario 2 — a smooth exit — on the basis that “it’s basically EU membership without the influence”. They would have willing accomplices among the hardest Leavers who will seek to fight a referendum under Scenario 1 instead — essentially pitching the WTO Option against Remain.

Prime Minister Theresa May and most of the cabinet would need to support the “cliff edge” WTO Option in a Scenario 1 referendum or resign. She certainly couldn’t support Remain given that “Brexit means Brexit”. Such a U-turn would spell political death and either way, the likelihood of an open split in the Conservative Party and civil war would be high. And all before a General Election, which is why the Government will try and prevent it boiling down to this choice.

But just suppose by some miracle the Reversers managed to get a second referendum on the basis of “Remain vs Leave (WTO Option)”.

It would be a more hysterical and entrenched re-run of the 23rd June with the Remain/Reverse side laying it on thick with portents of doom about a “Hard Brexit” that will give voters a nagging feeling that they’ve heard this all before and additionally may resent being asked again. This time it would be done in a less benign economic situation [could it have been any more benign on 23rd June?] but also after long divorce proceedings with an organisation that now clearly doesn’t like us. The Leave side would point out that remaining in the EU now, after everything that has happened, would be a national political disaster of the highest order, basically making Britain a servile “whipping boy” taking punishment beatings for an eternity. No British government, the Leave side would say, would ever try leaving the EU again after a Remain vote.

It’s unclear which way the result would go and so one might say that the Reversers are playing with fire by bringing on a Scenario 1 referendum. But as we have seen, extreme Reversers want an economically sub-optimal Brexit to prove themselves right — “the harder and more catastrophic, the better”.

What is more likely, in my opinion, is that the governing Conservative party won’t go down this “uber-fractious” route. Instead it would coalesce around the EEA option — Scenario 2 — and start fighting for its positive aspects which are rarely stated due to the extremes of the debate. The government may also package up the deal with a series of domestic reforms and then it may or may not put all of that to a second referendum. If it did, the alternative on the ballot paper would be stated as remaining in the EU. The Reversers would obviously fight for that outcome and yet some Remain veterans would see an EEA position, as staying close to the EU. Equally some Leave veterans would see it as at least leaving the EU in a fairly low-key way; some key Leave figures would very likely to come out in support of it. In essence, the Remain and Leave lobbies would both split internally. Conservative Leavers would come to see the EEA solution as necessary to hold the Conservative Party together after the most heated parliament in modern history. And of course the government and establishment (possibly without Theresa May) would, this time, be on the side of leaving.

Consequently, were a Remain/Reverse campaign to be fought against the EEA option, it would almost certainly lose. And probably lose big.

But just suppose all the above is nonsense and the Reversers managed to navigate their way through and win. Let’s say that the Reversers win a second referendum by maybe 56% to 44%, thus apparently “trumping” and certainly reversing the 23rd June vote.

What then?

Does the UK just pick up where we left off in the EU, as the awkward-but-heavily-paying partner? A partner that is now not only reluctant about the EU project but whose people don’t think of themselves as European and still don’t believe in ever closer union? A partner that is disliked and/or distrusted by the rest of the EU? A partner that got as far as triggering Article 50 and went through full divorce proceedings over two difficult years? Whose Leave movement tasted freedom only to have it snatched away, thus causing the anger of many of the 44% to reach fever pitch?

Seriously? I mean, seriously? What kind of relationship is that going to be?

Which begs the question: are the Reversers really asking for a status quo ante that has gone and is no longer realistic for either the UK or the EU? Actually it’s even worse than that because since June, the EU has already moved away from UK positions towards a more politically integrated entity with an added defence component (as noted by former Remainer Philip Hammond in his interview with Die Welt where he described such moves as “anathema to the UK”).

So if Reversers are not asking for a status quo ante that has gone, nor a politically mad “catch-up” to where the EU has moved to since 23rd June, what exactly are they asking for?

To coin a phrase: “What’s your plan?”

The 23rd June cannot be undone. It is a matter of historic record. At a stroke it blew away an uneasy relationship that just about held for decades, but only because politicians of all hues refused to ask the people again.

Until 2016. They gave us one chance and we took it.

Even on an optimistic Remain view, nothing about the UK/EU relationship will ever be the same again. Nor can it be. A reversal would attempt to reaffirm an unloved (by the vast majority) 40 year old establishment project and, by-the-by, would signal to people who still voted Leave that there is no chance of exit. Ever.

We’d be back to a situation as it existed a few years ago with no “reform” worth mentioning, but a Leave movement fired up and angry like never before.

The Reversers aren’t thinking this through. They have no plan. They are reacting from their gut. They believe not only that Leave is wrong but that it is against their very culture. That Leave was built on lies…

Which all sounds remarkably like their own view of those “emotional” “barbarian” hankering-after-the-past Leavers in the decades before 2016, who complained about how Britain was taken in to the EEC/EU on a lie. Now, it seems, it’s the Reversers’ turn to take up these kinds of views; to live daily in a new anti-culture (for them) and all the while refuse to accept it. As one academic recently put it, to “feel sick every day since the 23rd June.”

A kind of groundhog day, where we’d re-run the last 40 years, albeit with roles reversed.

Now that would be ironic.


UPDATE 25/01/17: Jolyon Maugham has since proved my point. With no sense of irony given the number of Remainers screaming “Where’s your plan?” and Leavers replying “We leave — that’s the plan”, Maugham has played back exactly the same approach for remaining in the EU after a second referendum.

Roland Smith

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Fellow of the Adam Smith Institute. Brexitologist. Globalist. euexit@gmail.com #Brexit