Skip to Content

Coffee House

Theresa May should back a People’s Vote — with one condition

31 January 2019

12:40 PM

31 January 2019

12:40 PM

Writing for The Spectator, I am already at grave risk of being expelled from the liberal elite, doubly so as a Remainer who (wearily, sceptically, fearfully) accepts the democratic mandate for Brexit. Soon I won’t be able to pick up breakfast at my local vegan food truck without the guy shrieking, ‘OH, DOES ROD LIDDLE LIKE SMASHED AVOCADO ON RYE TOO?’

So I embark on this, a thought experiment and not a serious proposal, with some trepidation. Here is the problem: the country voted to leave the European Union but MPs are not thrilled about the idea. They voted down the Prime Minister’s deal with the EU on the terms of our departure, some because it was too Brexity and others because it wasn’t Brexity enough. Then they voted to half-resurrect it if she can just negotiate the Irish backstop out of the agreement. May’s zombie accord was dead and has been reanimated, but signs of life don’t look good: Brussels is not for reopening talks on what they consider a done deal.

Rationally, the EU27 would be expected to reach a compromise and protect the interests of those member states with the most to lose from a no-deal Brexit (I may be a Remainer but I’m not completely sap-headed, Ireland). However, as Pieter Cleppe draws to our attention, the man in the driving seat, Martin Selmayr, is just bloody-minded enough to steer the whole thing off a cliff.

If renegotiation is a non-starter — or starts then ends abortively — we are left with a number of scenarios, none of which is particularly appealing. We could leave without a deal, which some Tory, but most other MPs don’t want. The Prime Minister could call a general election, which Labour wants but the Tories (and the SNP) would do everything to avoid. parliament could pass a motion of no-confidence in the government, though the numbers are likely not there. The final option is holding a second referendum on Brexit, which some MPs advocate, others secretly yearn for, more besides would be content with, but which Brexiteers and Downing Street oppose.

Bit of a pickle, then. Theresa May’s task is to balance incentives and disincentives until enough MPs figure that backing her deal — whatever that may look like in the coming weeks, days, or, frankly, minutes — is the only way to limit the damage. No one likes the deal but no one has to. They only have to believe it will prevent their opponents from achieving what they want and that supporting it sooner rather than later will stop the other side reshaping the deal in their favour. It’s the prisoner’s dilemma and the whole country is on remand.

What if May threw in a little carrot and a little stick? Announce that, if the EU refuses to renegotiate and parliament refuses to back her plan, we will have a ‘People’s Vote’ after all. Not the one the Remain Hiroo Onodas want, but one with a twist. This time there would be two questions on the ballot paper:

  1. Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union
  2. Should the United Kingdom remain a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights?

That would raise the stakes. Call it Brexit Plus. Proponents of a ‘People’s Vote’ would get their second referendum. If, as they assure us, the voters are champing at the bit to bin Brexit, they should have nothing to fear from a second question on the ECHR. There is a solid body of expert opinion that says the UK could be an EU member without being a signatory to the ECHR, so if that was the outcome chosen by the voters Remainers would still get the bulk of what they want.

Brexiteers oppose a second referendum on principle — the principle that voters shouldn’t be summoned back to the polling station every time Gina Miller disapproves of their decision. Deep down, though, some worry the country is sick of hearing about Brexit — not the same thing as turning against the policy — and might vote for an easy life. The carrot for them is the chance not only to strengthen the mandate for Brexit but to be rid of another European institution they despise.

Either side could win it all or lose their shirt but the Remain prisoner is more likely to be spooked first. Even if they believe the voters are ready to reject Brexit, they understand how emotive a plebiscite on the ECHR would be and how toxic a 72-point font debate on human rights would be for the prospect of securing a Remain vote. Soft Remainers may not like May’s deal but it would be by far the safer option.

The chances of a Brexit Plus referendum are slim but the idea should concentrate the minds of MPs willing to spurn an unloveable compromise in favour of an unattainable ideal. Decisions have consequences and indecision does too.

Show comments