I didn’t think I would ever see myself write this, but I think Nick Clegg is right: we need a second referendum on the EU. I come to this conclusion not because – like some Remainers seem to do – I think 52 per cent of the British population are too thick to make decisions affecting the future of the country and need to be made to vote again so that they can come up with the correct answer. I have come to it because it is the only way that Theresa May and her government are going to survive the next 15 months.
As is clear from polls at the weekend there is a lot of public anger, as well as disquiet on the Tory backbenches, at the size of the £40 billion leaving bill. If, as seems inevitable, the result of this week’s negotiations is that the government agrees to some kind of continuing regulatory alignment with the EU after Britain has left the bloc, that disquiet is only going to grow. The Prime Minister is going to find herself squeezed between two very unhappy Conservative flanks: between those who don’t want to leave the EU at all, and those who want to leave properly.
The only way she is going to resolve this, and therefore survive in office, is to announce that at the end of the negotiations there will be a second referendum with three choices on the ballot paper. Voters will be able to approve the deal which the government has made with the EU, to reject it and leave the EU without a deal, or to remain in the EU under current arrangements – the latter option reversing the result of the 2016 referendum. In the manner of the single transferable vote, we should be invited each to express a first and second preference vote. If none of the options secures 50 per cent of the vote then the least-favoured option should be dismissed and the second preferences of those who supported it distributed between the other two options. Moreover, the bottom of the ballot paper should be marked with the words: this decision is final.
Announce such a referendum and May will be able to get on with her job. Arch-leavers and arch-remainers will stop biting lumps out of her and her ministers and concentrate on convincing the public to support their case in the referendum. Moreover, it will focus the government’s mind on doing what David Cameron failed to do – and get a deal which is good enough to earn the support of the British public.
At present, I fear the emerging deal will be the worst of all worlds. I know how I would vote if the above referendum were held tomorrow. My first preference would be to leave with no deal and my second to remain in the EU. If we going to be forced to fund EU projects and not have full freedom to set our own regulations and cut our own trade deals with the rest of the world I can’t see the point of leaving at all. If we are not prepared to transform ourselves into a Singapore, recasting Britain as an unashamed honeypot for business and enterprise then Brexit will have been a waste of time and money. If we are going to remain a European-model social democratic country then we might as well remain in a club of other European social democracies.
That is what I think at the moment, anyway. I am open to be persuaded, otherwise. But I really think we ought to have a say – and that we will get a much better deal if we are granted one.