It would be easy to dismiss the Independent Commission on Referendums as a branch of the lobby trying to overturn the Brexit result – even if it does contain a token Leave campaigner, Gisela Stuart. Its pretentious title could easily lead people to mistake it for an official, government-sanctioned inquiry rather than a unsolicited piece of work by academics at the Constitution Unit, UCL. It is utterly certain that the commission would not have been set up had the Remain side won the day two years ago.
Yet even so, the commission is right when it concludes that referendums “work best when they are held at the end of a decision-making process to choose between developed alternatives.” Whether you are for Brexit or Remain it would be impossible to argue that the process for enacting the decision made by the British people in June 2016 is going well. For a few brief hours over the weekend you could claim that there was some kind of logical process going on, but then late on Sunday evening came David Davis’ resignation (and subsequently Boris Johnson’s departure). Chaos had been restored. A little over eight months to go until we leave the EU, we still have little idea what is going to happen – whether we will still be part of the EU in all but name, or whether we will leave without a deal.
We are in this mess because David Cameron called a referendum without giving any idea of what it would mean if we voted ‘Leave’. He didn’t do this because he didn’t want that result and he didn’t think it would happen. It is the opposite of, say, Blair’s referendums on Scottish and Welsh devolution where the then Labour government was asking the public to approve a measure that it itself desired and the details of which it had already worked out. With the Brexit referendum the Cameron government supported the status quo option and opposed the ‘change’ option. As was obvious from his instant resignation, Cameron had no plan whatsoever of what to do in the event of a ‘Leave’ vote – except, that is, for himself to leave.
I stick to what I wrote here last December, that the only way the government is going to survive the next few months is to call a second, three-way referendum, this time offering a choice which is clear. We should have the option of leaving the EU on the terms that the government has managed to negotiate with Brussels (which would have to be finalised before such a referendum could be held), staying in the EU on current arrangements or leaving with no deal. We should be allowed two preferences, with second preferences added to first preferences in order to settle on an option which has the support of more than 50 per cent of the population.
I say this not as a bad-losing Remainer but because I fear it is the only thing that will save us from Jeremy Corbyn. The government has failed to produce a workable form of Brexit which it can get through the House of Commons, and Labour is no clearer on what it wants ( though it would almost certainly scoop up votes in an emergency general election purely by virtue of not being the government which caused the chaos). It is time to throw the decision back to the British people.