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Referendum rerun bad idea, vote on Brexit terms good idea

by Hugo Dixon | 05.09.2016

MPs today debate a motion that there should be a second referendum. The anger of Remain voters who feel cheated by a Leave campaign that didn’t spell out what Brexit meant – or, insofar as it did, was often dishonest – is understandable.

But an attempt to rerun the referendum now is a bad idea. We have just voted. While there were deficiencies in the campaign, they were not sufficient to undermine its legitimacy. We must also acknowledge that, although the Leave camp’s dishonesty was egregious, the Remain camp also said things that weren’t true – for example, David Cameron’s assertion that he would still be prime minister if he lost the vote.

What’s more, the specific motion MPs are being asked to debate – after more than 4 million people signed a petition – would be equivalent to changing the rules after the game has been played. It reads as follows:

We the undersigned call upon HM Government to implement a rule that if the remain or leave vote is less than 60% based a turnout less than 75% there should be another referendum.

There should, though, be a referendum on the Brexit terms once Theresa May has finally figured out what Brexit means. The Leave camp promised a raft of things – including an extra £350 million a week for the NHS, access to the single market, an end to free movement, scrapping VAT on fuel bills, control of the rules governing our trade, no damage to the economy, no risk to the union with Scotland and no border controls with Ireland – that seem impossible to keep.

Indeed, on the plane to the G20 summit, the prime minister is already backing away from several pledges made by Vote Leave – including introducing an Australian-style points system to control migration, scrapping VAT on fuel bills, ending contributions to the EU budget and giving an extra £100 million a week to the NHS. At various times, the Leave camp promised different amounts to the NHS. The £350 million pledge was on its battle bus.

When May and her three Brexiteers have finally negotiated our divorce deal, the electorate should have a chance to say whether they still want to leave. And, if they don’t, they should be allowed to stay.

This is, admittedly, contrary to government policy. The only major politician backing the idea is Owen Smith – and he is likely to be defeated in this month’s Labour leadership elections. But if sufficient Leave voters change their minds over the next couple of years, politicians’ views may change too.

Some Brexiteers say it is undemocratic even to suggest this. This is nonsense. What would be undemocratic is denying citizens the chance to stay in the EU if, after reflection, they decide they want to.

Hugo Dixon is co-founder of CommonGround – which is fighting for a fair and open society, and honest politics – as well as editor-in-chief of InFacts

7 Responses to “Referendum rerun bad idea, vote on Brexit terms good idea”

  • While the common sense in this piece is welcome, and I agree that we can’t now rerun the June referendum, there are two areas in which its argument is deficient. First, the terminology of the petition is as it is because it was set up by a leave advocate just before the referendum on the then belief that remain would just win. But the point of is that 4 million people signed it for what it became – a protest at the manner in which a suspect victory was won.

    Second, the referendum was set up by Parliament as advisory and non-binding. The Goverment however presented it to the electorate as binding. This is an issue that may ultimately be resolved in the courts. Again, the point is that May, the media, the Labour Party and Uncle Tom Cobley and all (apart from some MPs and Lords and some pressure groups of which March for Europe and 48 And Beyond are good examples) are presenting it as a mandate from the people which must be acted on whatever the costs to the UK.

    Those who voted in favour of leaving ain’t even the majority of the electorate who either voted to stay, or did not express a view. It is important that the consultative and non-binding nature of the referendum is reiterated at every opportunity to counter Government misinformation on this point.

  • But as the linked article states, it isn’t a matter of choice, it’s a simple matter of law.

    The European Union Act 2011 is 100% clear that almost any form of Brexit deal must be put to the public in a separate, binding referendum.

    There are those on both sides who don’t want another referendum, but what they think and feel is irrelevant. In this country, it is the law that matters.

    Whilst laws can be changed, the idea that this EU Act 2011 can be scrapped easily is laughable. The government has a minute majority in the Commons and is nowhere close to a majority in the Lords. In the unlikely event that the government could get a repeal through the Commons, it won’t be able to in the Lords and there is every chance the Lords could delay it enough to ensure a vote is still required.

    But what on Earth have we to fear from the people making a choice on hard facts and a deal that we can all read? If it will be as good as the Leavers claim, then a considerable number of Remainers will accept the changed situation and unite behind Brexit. In the more likely event that the deal bears no relation to what was promised (and loses us vastly more than we could gain), then many Leavers will probably switch to Remain – safe in the knowledge that we can always pull out in the future if we wish to.

    The only spanner in the works could be Corbyn. If, after his near-certain re-election, he decides to support scrapping the 2011 Act and he can get enough votes behind him, he could scupper a vote on the final deal more easily than Ms May could.

    Strange times.

    This law still stands though and in all likelihood will continue to for some time. Until it is scrapped, we should, regardless of our personal feelings, expect the government to obey it.

  • It seems clear that May (Hammond was already there) are being driven away from the crazier unilateral Brexit ideas of Fox and Davies, and closer to the famed “Norwegian” model. There are three problems at least with this. The first is Norway. The Norwegian government is far from certain it wants the vastly larger UK in the EEA and it can block it. Even if it doesn’t there is presumably a quid pro quo. The second problem is the other 27 EU countries will probably (not unanimously, but on aggregate) see it as too easy a way and too encouraging of other European separatists. And finally it’s impossible to imagine such a deal being stitched in two years, which means all kind of problems with section three of Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. It almost certainly involves a renegotiation of the Good Friday Agreement. Good luck with that one. An unknowable amount of time, effort and money will go on producing a deal that could never be as good as what the UK has now. I actually don’t believe we live in a post fact age. The standing of certain professions hasn’t recovered from the 2008 crash and the proliferation of poor quality pundits facilitated by the internet. But gravity is still there, and one plus equals two. That this is pointless will finally filter down to all but the most extreme Brexit fanatics. And when the crack in support comes expect a landslide.

  • If it’s undemocratic to call for a second referendum, why have we had 3 referendums on the topic in the last 50 years.

    You could use the same argument to say once the decision to join had been made, those opposed to the EU had no democratic right to campaign to leave it.

    A second referendum on the terms of exit would also likely be more objective with clearer proposals to debate and consider at the conclusion of negotiations as opposed to hyperthetical promises of jam tomorrow.

  • I had been thinking along these lines. It’s good to see someone else thinks this.

    I can see the objection to another referendum on the same question, but a referendum on the specific terms of Brexit would make sense. Brexiters said they wanted more democracy so they should welcome this.

  • There is certainly an appeal to agreeing from now that there should be a referendum on the final package. I have two concerns about this, though:
    1. Will there be such a thing as a final package? A trade agreement with the EU may not have been negotiated by the time of Brexit, for example. Surely the post Brexit world will emerge slowly over many years.
    2. If there is a referendum after Article 50 has been invoked, is there a clear way back? Won’t that be dependent on negotiating with the 27 from a weak position? There is then a risk that Remainers will be the ones who will be advocating a leap in the dark.