The problem with a second referendum, part two

The call for a second EU referendum is gaining momentum, but what would you even ask the people?

One of the first topics I wrote about this year was the possibility of a second referendum on EU membership.

At the time I wrote that another popular vote on the matter wouldn’t make a whole lot of sense.

A second EU referendum wouldn’t put the issue to bed. And although a couple of politicians were toying with the idea at the time, the vast majority of the population didn’t feel much for a do-over.

Now, on the very last day of the year, I feel compelled to circle back to this issue. Mainly because the possibility of a new vote is looking more likely now than it did at the start of the year.

Whether or not there should be a second EU referendum might sound like a simple question. Either you’re in favour of another vote, or you’re against it.

But there’s more to it. Even if you’re in favour of another referendum, what question has to be put on the ballot this time around?

Here’s the problem with a second EU referendum, part two.

Least bad choice

As recently as 16 December, Prime Minister Theresa May ruled out another referendum because it would “break faith” with the British people and do “irreparable damage” to politics.

Even so, a second referendum has been getting more likely of late.

At the start of the year only a desperate Tony Blair and a cocky Nigel Farage openly talked of another vote. The past few months support for a “people’s vote” has been gaining momentum.

Two months ago, about 700,000 people marched the streets of London to call for another vote. Former ministers Jo Johnson, Guto Bebb and Sam Gyimah even quit the government in order to endorse a second referendum.

Indeed, despite her public opposition to a follow-up vote, May will be seriously considering it behind the scenes.

The fact that the PM denies a new referendum is on the table doesn’t count for much. She promised not to call a snap election either, but broke that promise last year as soon as it appeared to be in her favour to do so.

A second referendum might be the only way for May to save her neck.

Parliament is due to vote on the government’s Withdrawal Agreement with the EU in mid-January. As it stands, that agreement is expected to bounce like a bad cheque.

What happens then? There won’t be much time to renegotiate with the EU. Even if there were more time, Brussels doesn’t seem willing to offer something considerably better than the deal that’s on the table.

May could run down the clock and offer pretty much the same deal again to parliament hoping MPs won’t risk a no deal Brexit…

Or she could go over MPs’ heads and let the British electorate take this decision for them.

As an old Greek phrase goes, “the least bad choice is the best”. If parliament throws out May’s agreement with the EU, which took her nearly two years to negotiate, asking the British people for help could well be her least bad choice.

A new referendum could help May in two ways.

First of all, it would take the heat off her government. The UK population gets to decide its own fate. May simply has to promise to stick to the outcome.

And secondly, it’s a way of buying more time with the 29 March deadline looming. After all, the only reason the EU might agree to giving the UK more time is if it’s holding another referendum with “remain” on the ballot.

No right way

At the moment we have a considerable number of UK citizens and a decent group of politicians backing another referendum.

We have a government that’s weighing its options and I’m sure holding a new referendum is one of those options.

It certainly looks like a second plebiscite is a real possibility, but what would be on the ballot?

A referendum could clarify things or confuse things further depending on the question that is put to the public.

The problem is there doesn’t seem to be a question that will satisfy all the parties involved and definitively put the issue to bed.

One option for a second referendum is to simply do a re-run of 2016 with the exact same options, leave the EU or remain.

However, both May and Brexiteers see the 2016 referendum as “final” and another referendum on the same question would be seen as betraying the British people.

It also wouldn’t clarify anything if the campaign to leave the EU wins again unless “leave” is clearly defined in advance as either “no deal” or “May’s deal”.

Next, there’s the three-way vote between remain, leave without a deal, and leave with May’s deal. It would have the advantage of clarifying where the public stands.

But it would split the leave vote and increase the odds of a victory for remain. Clearly this would be seen as a stitch-up.

Another idea is to let people vote on the kind of Brexit they want: no deal or May’s deal. It would make sense to do this since the UK already chose to leave the EU in 2016 and it’s now only consulted on the way forward.

Problem is that most people who want another vote want a “remain” option on the ballot. Besides, the UK would probably need an extension of the 29 March deadline to hold another referendum and the EU won’t grant the UK this favour if there’s no chance of reversing Brexit.

Finally, the government could consider three-way preferential voting with people ranking the options “remain”, “leave with May’s deal” and “leave without a deal”. It would have the advantage of asking Brits about all the options on the table.

But would this really help clarify the will of the people? Both remainers and leavers are likely to pick “leave with May’s deal” as their second choice, which could go on to “win” the vote. The government would then carry out something nobody actually wants.

In summary, it doesn’t look like there’s a right way to hold a new referendum, which means it’s probably best not to hold one again. This doesn’t mean there won’t be another vote if MPs reject May’s withdrawal agreement in January.

One thing’s for sure: 2019 doesn’t promise to be dull!

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