What should be the question in a People’s Vote?

by Hugo Dixon | 16.07.2018

Justine Greening’s support for a People’s Vote has triggered a debate about what the exact question should be. The former education secretary, the most prominent Tory to back the campaign, thinks voters should have a three-way choice: between staying in the EU; whatever Brexit deal the government negotiates; and leaving the EU with no deal at all.

In many ways, this debate is premature. The precise question has to wait until the end of Brexit talks, when we will know whether any deal has been agreed. With the Brexit extremists in the Tory party flexing their muscles again, crashing out of the EU without a deal is a real possibility.

However, we can say three things right now about the question. 

First, and most importantly, the people must have the option to stay in the EU. If the government comes up with a miserable deal – as seems all too likely – or wants to crash out with no deal at all, the public must not be dragged out against its wishes. 

Two years ago, voters had a choice between the reality of “in” and the cake-and-eat-it fantasy of “out”, as promised by Boris Johnson and his gang. Once we know what Brexit means, we have the right to say whether we still want it. 

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Second, Parliament must fix the question in the light of whatever happens during the talks. MPs should only put viable options on the ballot paper; otherwise, they will be tricking the people. 

Third, if Greening or others want to propose a three-way vote, they need to convince the public that this would be better than a simple two-way choice.

One of the problems with the way she has explained things in her Times column is that she describes the “no deal” option as a “clean Brexit”. It would be anything but clean. Crashing out with no deal would be as messy as you could imagine.

If we quit without paying the £39 billion we agree that we owe, the EU will pursue us through the courts. If we don’t honour our promises to the 3.5 million EU citizens living here, it will be outraged. If we reintroduce border controls in Ireland, the peace process will be in jeopardy. And this is without even mentioning the economic chaos that will ensue.

That said, it is fantastic that the former education secretary is backing our campaign. The Brexit process is going off the rails. Theresa May hasn’t been able to come up with a good Brexit after two years in power because there is no such thing. Once she has messed around for another few months and delivered the least worst Brexit deal she can, the people must have the final say.

Edited by Quentin Peel

12 Responses to “What should be the question in a People’s Vote?”

  • It is clear that “no-deal” can’t be on the ballot. The agreements we’ve already made with the EU have to be honoured. The consequences of tearing up those agreements at the eleventh hour would be catastrophic. The EU would rightly consider us a basket case. It’s hard to imagine they would even bother to negotiate further.

  • Justine Greening’s suggestion of having three questions is a good one, provided, as you say, each question presents a clear option that is actually available to us. An important aspect of what she suggests is that a preferential voting system should be used. That way, if the three options were, broadly speaking, hard, soft, and remain, then we would see whether either the hard or the soft option was more popular than remaining in the EU. Since hard would be catastrophic and soft is utterly pointless, it seems likely that remain would beat either, but actually seeing this at the ballot box would be very useful.

    It also seems highly possible that the combined first-preference votes for the two leave options would be more numerous than the first-preference votes for remain, but using a preferential system would demonstrate just how unfair it was that all the different leave options were allowed to combine under one banner. To see how unfair, imagine a general election in which there were two rounds, the first of which was “Tory or not Tory” and the second (assuming the Tories didn’t get over 50% of the vote) a choice between the remaining parties.

  • The deciding vote must be a binary choice, since offering more than one choice either on the Remain or Leave side tends to skew the voting. The more choices, the more votes.

    With no deal being regarded as an acceptable stance in some quarters, this strengthens the Leavers position.

    Similarly, if Remain included an extreme option to join the eurozone for instance, and if there was a vocal and assertive ‘hard Remain’ group insisting on ever closer union, that would strengthen the Remain position, partly because some voters would plump for the more ‘reasonable’ remain position.

    That’s why I’ve argued that a 4-way vote would be better than the 3-way scheme, in this article:


    However I have also heard an interesting suggestion that the French process that elected Macron might fit the bill. Let voters express their views on a number of possibilities initially, with the final binary run-off a fortnight later. But one would have to avoid the suggestion that we were copying the French!

  • The French system is inefficient. Why have two ballots on separate days, when they can be combined into one, either with Condorcet voting or the Alternative Vote? (Google if you don’t know.)

  • The simplest People’s Referendum choice would be between:
    a) accepting whatever deal May does [or, perhaps, her no deal] or
    b) suspending Article 50 so that negotiations can continue for as long as necessary to get a better Brexit deal.

    Option b) is technically a pro-Brexit position, thus allowing the Johnsons etc to support it; however, absent any end-date, negotiations will probably reach a point where they continue in name only, until some future PM decides to end the charade and resume EU business as usual.

  • Isn’t it time we now accepted the outcome of a perfectly legal referendum and made the best of it.
    Persistent bickering is getting us nowhere

  • I presume that the delay before the first and final vote gives voters the chance to marshall their thoughts and focus on the final voting options, and may tend to give a different and arguably more valid result than one-time ranking

  • The only 2nd vote I would accept is for the Brexit deal or no deal. The vote to leave the EU has happened – end of!
    It is obvious that remainers want the 3 questions to split the leave vote. That in my view would be a constitutional outrage!

  • Any referendum is a poll. Any poll should include a ‘Don’t know’ option, or a pre-defined voting margin, for legitimacy. The 28% who didn’t vote were allegedly targetted by Aggregate IQ to stay at home, and not bother amidst the dreadful level of misinformation. If they had been allowed an option to admit to confusion and ambivalence, by ticking a ‘Dont know’ option, we wouldn’t now be subject to the false meme that ‘The People have Spoken’ It means Brexit means Brexit. It could mean UKIP and anti immigration. It could mean anti bureaucracy. It could mean anti capitalism. Or it could mean anything Liam Fox wants it to mean.