British politics is engulfed in an unprecedented state of disarray. Just a few weeks ago, the nation was fretting that the Parliamentary Liaison Committee might launch an effort spearheaded by Nick Boles to take control of the Brexit negotiations away from the government. In the context of the thrashing chaos of last week, the mind-bending terrors of this coming fortnight and the looming Brexit cliff edge, such a constitutional revolution now almost seems like a moderate and sensible step forward.
Parliamentary proceedings have become so tumultuous that it is nigh-on impossible for even the most seasoned commentators to predict where we will be in a week’s time, let alone what will happen over the next year. Speaker John Bercow recently became a stickler for complying with the letter of precedent in his bid to block a third Meaningful Vote on the Brexit deal, despite having previously bypassed precedent to allow Dominic Grieve to propose a Remain-friendly amendment to a government motion.
The grounds for Bercow’s ruling were that Parliament cannot be made to vote on motions that are “substantially the same” if they have already been rejected. In theory, this principle should also prevent a further vote on a second referendum, since the Wollaston amendment was voted down by the Commons last week. However, given Bercow’s inconsistency — and the recent revelation that the Labour leadership plans to endorse the Kyle-Wilson amendment to the next Meaningful Vote, calling for a public vote on May’s deal — anything could happen. It is unclear how long Bercow’s tenure as chairman of the Erskine May Preservation Society will last; a second referendum cannot yet be discounted as a possibility.
For those who wish to respect the result of the largest expression of democratic will in the entire political history of the United Kingdom, this ought to be deeply worrying. There is a clear disconnect between the electorate and the elected; Britain voted Leave, but the Commons is jam-packed with Remainers. Our treasured Constitution That Isn’t A Constitution is creaking at the seams as wily politicians do everything they can to impede Brexit by overturning the vote.
It appears, though, that confiscating the wind from the sails of the referendum enthusiasts ought to be rather easy. All that is required is to highlight the fundamental flaws in the proposal and draw attention to the lack of consensus within the movement on how any public vote could actually work. There are several possible questions that could be posed on the ballot paper, but the campaigners have so far failed to coalesce around any one of them, which probably has something to do with the fact that none of them are feasible.
There are three clear options on Brexit: May’s Deal, No Deal and Remain. A three-way referendum is a wildly irresponsible idea, since the result is guaranteed to be contested. It is highly unlikely that any of the three options can gain a majority of the vote, so there would inevitably be disputes over whether First Past the Post or another system such as vote rankings and transfers should be used.
There is no conclusive means of determining the outcome of a three-way referendum, and on an issue where words like ‘treason’ are already being bandied about, those are the conditions for a perfect political storm. Given that Brexit occupies the front line of our raging culture wars, using complex and nuanced voting systems where the losing side can conceivably argue that a technicality has worked against their interests is a recipe for total mayhem.
The logical conclusion, then, is that one of the three options must be disregarded, allowing for a binary referendum. We have had those before and avoided civil war, so nothing could possibly go wrong. Except, of course, for the wealth of things that could go very wrong indeed. Each of the three paths forward has its own staunch supporters who will not sit idly by while their dreams are shattered. If other groups get to seek public approval for their preferred course of action, they are going to want in on that, too.
The Kyle-Wilson amendment calls for a public vote between May’s Deal and Remain. If a cartoonish evil mastermind wanted to inflict irreparable damage on British politics, this is how he would do it. The ERG, UKIP, Nigel Farage’s new Brexit Party and countless other prominent Brexiteer voices would be infuriated by being given what they would see as a false choice between a soft Brexit and no Brexit at all. Untold horrors would ensue. The yellow vests found their way to Westminster Bridge when No Deal was still the legal default.
Even more moderate Brexiteer voices would be outraged, and not without reason. Leavers would surely not be found whole-heartedly backing the Withdrawal Agreement in a public campaign. A scenario in which those who secured victory for Brexit the first time around are willing to sing the praises of the backstop is rather difficult to envision, especially given the obvious reticence with which some — such as Mark Wallace, Tim Stanley and Darren Grimes — have finally endorsed the deal in Parliament. Their rationale behind reluctantly backing the deal is that a harder Brexit now seems out of reach; a second referendum, though, would thrust it back onto the table with a renewed vigour.
No Deal being on the ballot is hardly better than it being left off. The viciousness of the 2016 campaigns left scars that are a long way from healing, and there is reason to believe that Referendum 2.0 would be considerably worse. A “Tell ’Em Again!” campaign that whips up fury against The Establishment would make our political discourse less nuanced than ever before. We would plunge new depths of polarisation.
May’s Withdrawal Agreement, universally despised as it appears to be, is the only sensible and moderate course of action on the table; it has been a work in progress for nearly two years and it cannot conceivably be left off the ballot paper. No matter how many times the Labour front bench might risibly label it a ‘damaging Tory Brexit’, leaving the EU with a deal is the necessary middle-ground choice. Few would stand for an all-or-nothing decision between maintaining full EU membership and a clean break with the bloc.
Leaving out Remain is also manifestly implausible. There is not a single public vote backer who sincerely buys into the “we know more now than we did in 2016” narrative; every single one of them wants to put a stop to Brexit. Inevitably, then, if all three options must be on the ballot paper but a three-way referendum is not viable, an impasse has been reached. A second referendum cannot work hypothetically, let alone in practice.
Even if a universally satisfactory question and vote-counting system were to be conjured out of thin air, a public vote would clearly be a catastrophically unwise course of action to pursue. It is easy to forget that, outside the Westminster bubble, people do not tent to be terribly au fait with the intricacies of the UK’s relationship with the EU because they, unlike us sad metropolitan politicos, lead actual lives.
After the 2016 referendum, one of the most Googled questions in the UK was “what is the EU?”, beaten only by “What does it mean to leave the EU?” How are those same voters expected to productively distinguish between the different types of Brexit? Recently, a not unintelligent relative asked me whether No Deal meant we stayed in the EU. This brand of highly specialised direct democracy is inherently incompatible with our parliamentary system of government.
Every time a People’s Vote campaigner appears in a TV studio, they should be grilled on what the question on the ballot paper would be, and how they would craft a widely acceptable voting process. They should then be made to explain how their plan will make any progress towards clarifying the future of the political situation. When they stutter and come up empty, the discerning British public will see first-hand how foolish a notion a public vote is and before we know it, any prospect of a second referendum will be Brian Jones; dead in the water.