In our Alice-in-Wonderland, topsy-turvy world where those seeking to overturn the result of the biggest vote of the people in our history ironically brand themselves as ‘People’s Vote’, the traditional response of Brexit supporters has been incredulity. The actual proposal – for a second referendum on our EU membership – has escaped scrutiny. Let’s set the ball rolling.
Would a Remain vote in a second referendum even result in Remain? There’s a court case going to the European Court of Justice at present, asking it to rule whether it’s even legal for the UK to unilaterally change its mind about invoking Article 50 and leaving the EU. There’s certainly nothing in the Treaties authorising that. What if the EU didn’t allow the UK to change its mind? What if it sought to impose punitive conditions on the UK for doing so?
How do they propose that everything should be done in time? At present, pro-Remain campaigners are spending vast unregulated sums of money seeking to shift public opinion. The Electoral Commission requires 6 months between calling a referendum and it taking place, to ensure a semblance of balance. In a referendum, campaign rules regulate spending. TV airtime was required to cover both sides equally. (Remain and Leave each had minor quibbles about the other side’s spending and co-ordination, though the big picture was that Remain outspent Leave by 3 to 2; the minutae will be argued for years, each side claiming victories as appeals go to higher and higher courts). How could legislation possibly have time to go through Parliament and a referendum be held fairly long before March 29th giving time for the European Parliament to sign off on any deal.
Extending the Article 50 deadline doesn’t help much either. That requires all 27 EU countries to agree to an extension. There are European Parliament elections in May. Those elections are planned based upon the UK having left, with all the seats re-allocated. The EU won’t allow their own elections to be utterly ruined by Brexit uncertainty. They might agree to a 4-6 week extension, but that’s about all.
Let’s suppose that a vote were held, with inconclusive results. Suppose they overruled the Electoral Commission, ignored balance requirements, and secured a tiny Remain majority on a low turnout on a snowy day in February, with far fewer people voting than in 2016. Would that legitimately overturn the biggest vote in our history?
What is the position in the event that Leave wins a second referendum? Will the European Parliament vote for a deal in the run-up to a UK referendum? Knowing my MEP colleagues, I seriously doubt it. In all likelihood the European Parliament wouldn’t vote until after a UK referendum. What if a UK referendum approves the deal, but the European Parliament rejects it? Would campaigners then call for a third referendum? How? When?
What if the second referendum were not based upon a clear, agreed deal? In that case, we’d have a carbon copy of 2016. ‘We don’t know exactly what Brexit will look like’ was their argument last time. It didn’t work, but they’d re-hash the same. Indeed, the mere potential of a second referendum is already emboldening the EU to offer a poor deal.
Finally, what of the social consequences of their actions? People’s Vote campaigners claim the original referendum campaign was based upon lies (I should probably avoid churlishly pointing out that they should know, because they told most of them). If the referendum in 2016 was acrimonious, what do they suppose a further referendum now would be? Do they not think it would be far, far worse?
Would they accept the result if Leave won again? Many of them claimed during the last campaign that they would, then accepted it publicly, but have since reverse-ferreted. Even if they did somehow pull off a Remain victory, at what price? 10 million or more committed, unwavering, Brexit voters would never trust democracy again.
Those campaigning for a second referendum should think very carefully: they propose a recipe for constitutional chaos. In the meantime, they’re torpedoing negotiations. The more traction they gain, the stronger the EU’s side of negotiations, and the worse deal we’ll get. If the UK is browbeaten into a poor deal, they need only look in the mirror to find out why.