04 April 2019, The Tablet

What are the chances of a second referendum?

A second referendum is only likely if Mrs May and/or Mr Corbyn see it as a way of advancing what they really want

What are the chances of a second referendum?

Brexit protesters in Westminster
Photo: David Mirzoeff/PA Wire/PA Images

So what are the chances of another referendum on Brexit? And has the case for one got stronger or weaker?

"Constructive" talks have taken place between the British prime minister and the Leader of the Opposition, and the referendum issue has, as the saying goes, been put on the table. It has at least three names: second referendum, people's vote, or confirmatory vote. Opponents of the idea call it a betrayal of democracy or ignoring the people's will.

But though they don't like admitting it, the main reason for their opposition is the fear that it might produce a different result, and as a consequence the United Kingdom would vote to remain in the European Union. The polls do suggest that is quite possible. So most of the arguments about "honouring the democratically expressed will of 17.4 million people" are not quite what they seem.

That does not mean they are all insincere. Probably one of the most sincere of all is Theresa May herself, who voted Remain and campaigned for that side but who regards it as her sworn duty to deliver the actual result. Indeed, the talks between party leaders have a bizarre irony, in that she is a Remainer leading a mainly Leave party, and Jeremy Corbyn is a Leaver at heart, leading a mainly Remain party.

What this means, in the politics of Brexit, is that a second referendum (or call it what you will) is only likely if Mrs May and/or Mr Corbyn see it as a way of advancing what they really want. What Mrs May wants is the passage by the House of Commons of an agreement with the EU on the terms of Britain's departure. Could a referendum help her with that? It is not impossible. For instance what about a three-way preferential referendum, with No Deal, her deal or Remain on the ballot paper and with the options to be listed by voters in order of preference?

Her deal might well be the second preference of both No Deal voters and Remain voters, and on that basis, once second preferences were included in the total, she could well win. This would also overcome the fact that her deal is not very popular in the country. Its main attraction would be that, though second best, it was better than the other alternative.

There is also the advantage is that the pre-election debate would force people to look beyond their perfect first choice and examine the merits of other possibilities. That mental exercise might ease the antagonism between different camps and help people see the other fellow's point of view.

From Jeremy Corbyn's perspective such a procedure might also have its attractions. He is not an ardent Remainer, unlike many of his followers, but he knows they want a referendum with Remain as one of the options on the ballot paper. He might tolerate a choice between Remain and whatever modified deal Mrs May can extract, this late in the day, from the EU. It would be too dangerous to make it a binary choice between Mrs May's deal and No Deal, as the latter might win.

His biggest headache is the large number of Labour-voting constituencies, mainly in the North of England, which voted heavily for Leave. And his biggest ambition is to oust the Tories at the next Parliamentary election. A referendum which reconciled those two apparently opposing factors would be very attractive to him.

His negotiating position in talks with Mrs May has to include membership of the EU customs union. That could be the basis of  the Commons majority that both of them are looking for. And it is not easy for Mrs May to argue that the 2016 referendum result was clearly a repudiation of the customs union. It was scarcely mentioned. Its main objection of course is that Britain would have no say in the rules governing said customs union because the rules are made by the EU, and Britain would no longer be member.

Those for whom that objection was strong, therefore, would have the option of voting to stay inside the EU, where Britain's influence would be felt as a full member; those who were less concerned about this detail could vote to Leave on the back of Mrs May's new (ie including membership of the customs union) deal. But Mr Corbyn would have satisfied his party's demand for a referendum, without upsetting too much those Leave voting, mainly Labour, constituencies which he is worried about. It would not  technically be a second referendum as the questions would be different this time, and putting a "Leave but customs union" option could be construed as a genuine public consultation, not a rerun of 2016.

This may sound too much like an end game at chess to appeal to the general public, but the idea of first and second preferences is simple enough. And the two leaders could emerge with their democratic credentials only slightly damaged, and with something gained. 

Clifford Longley will be writing regular updates on Brexit over the coming weeks. To read more click on the links below. 

Dark days in Brexit land

If a 'no deal' Brexit is ruled out, what next?

Revocation of Brexit on the horizon?

Could Brexit now be abandoned altogether?

Did May fundamentally misunderstand the Brexit referendum result?

What the Conservative Party really needs is a shift to the left

Is the collective of IQ of the House of Commons that of an 11-year-old?

Why is the British bulldog proving so bloody obstinate?

Can a May-Corbyn meeting break the Brexit impasse?

What do you think?


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