EU Ref 2 = Soft Brexit. Here’s Why

Hyper-intelligent mice have discovered the Ultimate Answer of Life, the Universe, and Everything is 42

It is becoming increasingly hard to tell the difference between reality and satire. Forty years ago Douglas Adams in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy described how a supercomputer the size of a city, Deep Thought, had determined the Ultimate Answer of Life, the Universe, and Everything. It’s 42. But, what’s the question?

In order to find out, according to the Sci-Fi spoof, a race of hyper-intelligent pan-dimensional mice built the earth as a laboratory. Back in the 1970s this seemed to be a silly satire, but now it sounds remarkably like a description of the great British Brexit debate.

In 2016 the UK electorate was asked the ultimate question about Europe. They gave their answer. A resounding, ‘Maybe’. That was the easy bit.

Now the people who are supposed to be running Britain are instead spending all their time trying to work out what the question was that voters thought they were answering. Just like Douglas Adams’ mice, a growing number of them want to build a second bigger referendum to either discover the question or change the answer.

While the debate about whether to take has going on, in the background, Wizzard, as they have every year from about August, has wished ‘it could be Christmas every day.’ Even the people really love the festive period would see, if they thought about it for more than a few seconds, this would destroy their favourite time of year.

Anybody who wants to stay in Europe should realise their dream of a new referendum is, in reality, a great way to guarantee Brexit, albeit with a negotiated departure.

The only point of holding another vote would be to rubber-stamp a massive change in public opinion. There’s absolutely no sign of that happening.

A few Brexit voters might now feel they made a mistake last time, others will have died, and a few more youngsters will have made their way on to the electoral roll to vote to remain, but basically the country remains as divided as it ever was.

Do you seriously imagine a few weeks more campaigning before a vote is going to alter that? How many people do you know who are likely to change their minds after a few more weeks of people shouting apocalyptic warnings and unprovable numbers at each other? Anybody?

I can tell you now what the result of a second referendum would be. It’ll be a victory for the current negotiated agreement to leave the EU.

Think about it. What’s a referendum going to decide? What will the questions be?

Is there going to be a rerun of 2016? Will it simply ask again, should we stay or should we go? That would never get through parliament. Brexit supporters would have all to lose and little to win. Remainers wouldn’t want to risk making the current political mess worse by losing another public vote. Even victory for them wouldn’t be great. Brexiteers could still blame Brussels for every ill. With the referendum score at one-all there’s no way they’d give up. Welcome to the neverendum.

So, you say, Parliament has to set a new question. Perhaps, as some centrist politicians suggest, a no-deal Brexit would be such a disaster that it shouldn’t be put as an option to the electorate. The choice should be between the negotiated settlement and staying in the EU.

There is no way that hard-line Brexit-supporting MPs would go for that. Don’t forget it was David Cameron backing an in-out EU referendum to appease that wing of the Tory party which got the UK into this mess in the first place.

Those Brexit hardliners might, however, if really pushed, support the option which seems to be favoured by the current leadership of the Labour Party if they’re forced into a referendum. This would honour the result of the last vote by providing only a choice between a deal or no-deal Brexit with no option to stay. (Of course, given the muddiness of Corbyn and Co’s position on the EU, their position may have changed by now. Who knows?)

Either way, it seems unlikely any proposal for a referendum offering only two options would get through Parliament. And the public would perceive it as unfair given there are three choices: a negotiated agreement, a no-deal Brexit or stay in the EU.

So, you say, the answer’s simple. Put all three options to a public vote.

Do that, and the deal agreed by the May government with the other EU countries will almost certainly win. Why?

Just think about it. The UK is deeply politically divided. But, for both remain and Brexit supporters, the negotiated deal is the least-worst option. They’ll vote for it in order to avoid the risk of losing completely.

Even if the referendum uses some form of proportional voting, the result will be the same. If, for instance, you ask people to put the three options in order of preference, the chances are that neither hard-line leave nor remain will get an outright majority. So, once again, everybody’s least-worst option will win.

There are other ways a referendum could be run, but they’ve never been tried in the UK before and a political experiment probably wouldn’t get much support at the moment. For instance, it would be possible to adapt the way that countries such as France run their presidential elections.

Using this method all three options would first be put to the public vote. Then there’d be a separate run-off between the two most popular. This might, I think, give remain a better chance of winning, but it’s an experiment that’s not going to happen anyway.

Having written all this criticism, I have no idea what the answer is. I do know that the wrong question was asked in the first place. A referendum is a lousy way of making a choice in a representative democracy.

The key word is ‘representative’. You elect MPs, MSPs, MEPs, councillors and the rest to make complex decisions on your behalf. If you don’t like their choices, you boot them out at the next election.

It’s a chaotic method of doing things, full of compromises that never satisfy everybody. There are also all sorts of ways democratic institutions have become corrupt and outdated. They need to be changed. But, referendums are not the way.

Very few questions have a yes or no answer. The world is too fast-changing and complex for that. For instance, I don’t believe for a minute that if Scotland had voted for independence, that it wouldn’t have created a Brexit-like negotiating mess. Nobody then voted on whether to keep the pound, the monarchy, the army or whatever other constitutional complexities turn up unexpectedly. I don’t remember the Irish border being a major point of debate in the last referendum.

The first referendum was a mess. I can’t see any reason why a second one would be supported by anybody. Except Theresa May.