Stopping Brexit – Referendum or General Election?

Over recent months the People’s Vote campaign has gained some considerable momentum, with polls in August and September indicating that slightly more people now want a referendum on the final Brexit deal than don’t.

The talk today has been whether the Labour Party will swing behind this (some of the unions already have) or whether Labour would rather have another general election.

Given that a core plank of the platform I stood for Parliament on in 2017 was that there should be a referendum once we knew the terms of any deal, I naturally have thought about this for quite a while.

A sizeable number of Remain voters would like the result of the 2016 referendum reversed. The stream of negative economic news has only been partially offset by the trickle of positive economic news. The country doesn’t seem to trust either the Conservative government or the EU to deliver a satisfactory outcome. Negotiations clearly haven’t gone well – the debacle over the Salzburg summit on Thursday is a demonstration of that.

So what would have to happen for Brexit to stop?

Parliamentary Vote?

One option is for Parliament to take back control of the process. They could vote to demand that a letter is sent revoking Article 50. I don’t think this is likely for two reasons – firstly, I don’t think a majority of MPs would currently do that, and secondly, if they did, it would lead to accusations of the elite acting in their own self-interests. Parliament would be clearly seen as overriding the “will of the people” (ignoring the fact that the will of the people is not a static thing).

General Election?

Labour have proposed yet another General Election – the third in a little over four years. I have to say that I see more than a little opportunism in that approach. They believe that with one more push they could see Jeremy Corbyn elected as Prime Minister. I think that’s an over-optimistic view – as Labour are declining in the polls (42% in late 2017, 36% now) and their position on Brexit is not seen as clear by the electorate. Plugging the latest opinion poll into the Electoral Calculus site (which is the best to a scientific method that we currently seem to have) would result in pretty much what we’ve got now, with the Conservatives and Labour slightly weaker and the Lib Dems almost doubling in size. The 2017 election showed that polls can move by a reasonable amount, but the canvassing I did over the summer showed that both the Labour and the Conservative vote is very weak, with voters for both parties saying “never again”. Indeed, the polls would have to register something like CON 34%, LAB 42% for Labour to gain a majority of just 1 (according to Electoral Calculus).

Ignoring the “political”, people vote in elections for all sorts of reasons. The 2017 election was supposed to be the Brexit referendum, but more people seemed concerned about the NHS and schools. There is no guarantee that the same wouldn’t happen in a November 2018 election. Indeed, some discussion about policies to be pursued after March 2019, Brexit or no Brexit, would be inevitable as we elect (in theory) MPs for 5 years. Added to which, Labour’s position still isn’t clear – would they attempt to stop Brexit, pause it, or renegotiate it?

For those reasons I don’t think an election would be either healing or produce a decisive Brexit result. As journalists have been asking Labour MPs – if the rationale for having a referendum is that any forthcoming Conservative Government deal hasn’t been verified by the British people, why would the same principle not apply to any forthcoming Labour Government deal? Which leaves a referendum.

Referendum?

Referendums generally present a binary choice – are you for something or against it. There are other ways to run them, such as an alternative vote mechanism, but I think using that kind of voting system in a referendum of this importance when it was rejected by referendum in 2011 would raise other questions.

There is a question over which binary choice would be presented – any deal that emerges vs remaining in, or any deal that emerges vs crashing out? Given that a narrow majority of the electorate now appears to favour remaining in the EU, any choice which doesn’t give that option would effectively disenfranchise the majority of voters – what would those who wanted to remain in the EU vote for? You then run the risk of around 40% of voters deciding the future of the country.

For that reason I think that remain (the status quo option) has to be one of the choices, and that the “deal” (should one emerge) be the other.

The other danger is that getting a referendum is only the first part of the battle. In order to remain in the EU, the Remain side would need to win and probably win convincingly. A simple reversal of the 2016 narrow margin would simply entrench societal divisions – and the polls indicate that such a narrow win for Remain is currently the most likely result.

However…

The PPERA Act gives clear rules governing the conduct and timescale of a referendum – which effectively means that the primary legislation required would need to clear both houses of parliament by the middle of October. This is still politically contentious and there is currently no agreement about what question should be asked. Without Government backing such a piece of legislation is very unlikely to be passed in that timescale, and Government shows no signs of backing such legislation in the next few weeks. So the PPERA route prior to 29 March 2019 is closing.

Real politick requires attention be given to the mood of the public – so if it becomes clear that the vast majority of people want a People’s Vote, then Government would be wise to act on it. That would mean asking to delay the exit day past 29 March 2019 to a point when the referendum process could be completed. While politically the EU27 are likely to agree to this, it’s not a dead-cert. It would theoretically be possible to pass primary legislation for the referendum which bypasses PPERA – although such legislation would likely be subject to judicial review, which would then also require deferring the exit day.

What a general election might do is change the composition of the Commons to the extent that a majority for stopping Brexit does emerge but, unless any new incoming government is Liberal Democrat or consists of other MPs who have given a clear statement that they would vote to stop Brexit, you then still have the issue of giving the people a clear choice – under a theoretically shorter timescale. But, even as a Liberal Democrat prospective parliamentary candidate who could be an MP if the Lib Dems reach 40 MPs, I have to admit that this clean-sweep of the Commons looks unlikely.

So…

Is it possible to stop Brexit at this late stage? Yes.

Is it likely through democratic means before 29 March? Not unless a general election returns a clear majority of MPs committed to stop Brexit and the election campaign focused on Brexit.

Is it likely that Brexit day could be delayed beyond 29 March? Yes – if enough people make it clear that a People’s Vote and stopping Brexit is what they want. A general election is not needed to do this.

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