Amidst the summer months it is perhaps understandable if developments on Brexit have not been paramount in people’s minds.
But for those still keeping abreast of what is happening, they will have noticed two distinct narratives currently running in parallel. They are the rising threat of the UK leaving the European Union without a deal, and the growing movement for a People’s Vote second referendum on the final outcome of negotiations.
Potentially, these two occurrences have more in common than people realise.
The warnings of a no deal scenario have ballooned over the past few weeks. Bank of England governor Mark Carney has talked up the prospect, as have the International Monetary Fund. Recurring headlines on a daily basis have cautioned how no deal would lead to food and medicine shortages, and according to Police commissioners would put the British public at risk due to the UK losing access to EU wide security powers and databases.
In amongst these warnings, the campaign for a referendum on a final Brexit deal has gathered pace. It gained prominence back in mid July when former Prime Minister Tony Blair – writing through his non profit organisation Institute for Global Change – reaffirmed support for a second vote, one that would include the option of leaving the EU without a deal:
- The question may be complicated because it really involves three choices: Clean Break, ‘soft’ or stay. But the complexity is not insuperable.
Blair later confirmed to The Economist that if such a referendum delivered a no deal result, it would be accepted with the matter settled for a generation.
Former Conservative cabinet minister Justine Greening was next to endorse another referendum. Like Blair, she advocated three options on the ballot: the final deal (if agreed), a ‘clean break‘ no-deal or remaining in the EU.
Three days on, the Economist magazine published two articles (The case for a second Brexit referendum and A second Brexit referendum is back in play) that discussed the prospect of a follow-up referendum. Whilst supporting the concept, they warned that having a no deal option on the ballot would be ‘fantastically risky‘ and ‘give voters an option no one except the loopiest Brexiteers support’:
- Mrs May has foolishly spent the past two years repeating the bluff, aimed at Brussels, that ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’. There is a terrible risk that the British public take her at her word.
The Economist outlined how a binary choice option would be ‘clearer than one MP’s suggestion of a three-way one‘, whilst pointing out that those who want to leave the EU would perceive a new referendum as a betrayal on the original 2016 vote.
Shortly after, The Independent launched their ‘Final Say‘ campaign and publicly backed a People’s Vote that would give voters the option of leaving the EU with no deal:
- If there is no deal on offer, the ballot paper would be simple: a choice between leaving the EU with no deal, or staying in the EU. If there is a proposed deal, there would need to be three options on the ballot, expressed in some variety of preferential voting system: accept the deal and leave the EU, leave the EU without a deal, or remain in the EU.
The Independent spoke of how the Brexit process began with a referendum, and so should as a matter of course culminate with a second. This could, in their eyes, heal divisions between voters and ‘provide clarity‘. They also suggested that the result could be made binding which would ‘add a formal air of finality to the episode‘.
The New Statesman then ran a piece called, ‘The vote that could stop Brexit.’ Here, they gave their backing to a People’s Vote, describing it as ‘the only plausible way to avert what millions regard as a looming catastrophe for Britain.’ Chuka Umunna, the chief political figurehead of the People’s Vote campaign and quoted throughout the article, concurred with Tony Blair that a vote to still leave the EU would ‘settle the issue for a generation.’
At the start of August, Gina Miller – who back in April 2017 launched the anti-Brexit organisation ‘Best for Britain‘ (Miller is no longer associated with the group) – wrote in The Guardian of her support for a second referendum and for the ballot to include the option of leaving the EU with no deal:
- Three options should be put to the public: the deal Theresa May negotiates, the special deal we already have with the EU, or no deal.
Lost in amongst the rise of People’s Vote rhetoric was an article conceived by Steve Bullock titled, ‘No Deal Brexit isn’t an option‘. Bullock was a former negotiator for the UK and the EU and has worked in the European Commission and Whitehall. He made the point that the policy of Theresa May’s government remains that ‘no deal is better than a bad deal.’ In his view, the UK should take the no deal option off the table and exclude it as a possibility immediately:
Parliament should refuse to consider No Deal as an option, either in votes it holds, or in the referendum on the withdrawal agreement that many in the UK are now calling for. It should not be considered, anymore than the amputation of a leg should be considered to treat a cold.
Bullock’s perspective is in similar vein to The Economist, in that granting the electorate the choice of leaving the EU with no agreement runs the risk of that very outcome.
Whilst researching content for this article, it first appeared that the anti-Brexit campaigners calling for a People’s Vote were neither dismissive or supportive of a no deal option being put to the people. To try and gain some clarity from these groups, I contacted Best for Britain, People’s Vote, Open Britain, Our Future Our Choice (OFOL) and For Our Future’s Sake (FFS) and asked them all the same question: if a deal is agreed between the British government and the European Commission, would they support a no deal option on the ballot?
All five organisations replied over the course of two weeks.
The official Twitter account for OFOL told me that their primary focus was for securing the option of continued membership of the EU, in what ‘could be in a 2 way or 3 way referendum‘.
After a brief conversation with Best for Britain CEO Eloise Todd on Facebook Messenger, she told me that their main argument is for a binary choice option between ‘whichever version of leaving Theresa May prioritises‘ (assuming a deal is reached with the EU), and the UK’s ‘current terms with the EU.’
Regarding a multiple choice ballot that included the option of leaving with no deal, Todd stated that Best for Britain were ‘keeping a close eye‘ on the three way referendum debate and were not ruling it out.
A spokesperson at For Our Future’s Sake, Rosie McKenna, responded by saying that no deal should ‘absolutely not‘ be an option in a referendum. Whether her stance is indicative of the group as whole is not as clear. A second spokesperson for FFS, Amatey Doku, has regularly commented on Twitter that ‘only a People’s Vote will stop a hard Brexit‘.
Lastly, I received a reply from People’s Vote via Thomas Cole, Head of Policy and Research at Open Britain. These two organisations have become largely interchangeable (Open Britain recently re-branded its Facebook page under the People’s Vote banner).
Cole began by telling me that ‘the question on the ballot is a question for parliament to decide‘. That said, he did reveal People’s Vote’s own view, which is a choice between the final Brexit deal and remaining in the EU. Cole concluded by saying that ‘the focus is on campaigning to secure a People’s Vote on the final Brexit deal.’
The commonality between these campaigners is in how their focus is predominately on a), securing a referendum and b), ensuring that the option of remaining in the EU is on the ballot. Because of this, the prospect of a no deal option is developing beneath their commentary rather then playing a central part.
The promise of a People’s Vote being the sole method of averting a ‘hard‘ Brexit – by way of a remain option – is seemingly where these groups want the attention of activists to lie.
In summary, the feeling at present is that if no deal is agreed with the EU, a second referendum (if held) would be a choice between leaving with no deal or remaining in the union. If a deal is forthcoming, the ballot becomes either a binary option (accept the deal vs. leave with no deal, or accept the deal vs. remain in the EU) or a multiple choice (accept the deal, leave with no deal or remain in the EU).
Notice that the majority of these potential outcomes maintain the prospect of a no deal scenario.
This is where parliament comes in.
Advocates of remaining in the EU are spearheading the calls for a People’s Vote, on the pretext that the parliamentary process of leaving the EU is in ‘deadlock‘ and failing to provide the leadership required to prevent a ‘hard‘ Brexit. Politicians and the media believe a ‘meaningful vote’ in the House of Commons will not provide sufficient clarity because of deep rooted divisions across party lines. A prospective deal would therefore fail to command majority support. If so, this would present a pathway for a second referendum to take place.
But if figureheads like Keir Starmer and Chuka Umunna are to be believed, then parliament cannot countenance the prospect of allowing the UK to drop out of the EU without a deal. Their public statements indicate that parliamentary legislation should ensure that no deal is taken off the table as an option, and should not breath life into the possibility.
A quick look at the legislative side of Brexit, though, demonstrates that the opposite is happening. The widely held perception of parliament being in ‘deadlock‘ has been misconstrued, either unwittingly or deliberately.
So far this year, MP’s have rejected staying in the European Economic Area, sanctioned the EU Withdrawal Act into law (with the exit date of 29th March 2019 written into the legislation), passed the government’s Customs Bill whilst rejecting calls for the UK to join a new customs union if no deal is agreed, and dismissed an amendment intended to direct the Prime Minister’s approach in the event of no agreement. Had the amendment passed, it would have reduced the chances of the UK leaving the EU under the terms of no deal.
The House of Commons have consistently rebuffed almost all Lords amendments on Brexit legislation. The Lords themselves raised no further objections once the amendments were repeatedly rejected. As a result, a no deal scenario for Brexit remains active, which in turn has allowed for the movement behind a second referendum to grow.
Whether it comprehends it or not, parliament has acted as a facilitator for a potential no deal.
The debate this year has been around the government not having a detailed plan for directing the UK’s exit from the EU. It is worth recalling, however, that back in 2017 it was parliament that triggered the Article 50 process by a majority of 372. It was a decision based on very little information, as the government did not produce a white paper detailing how negotiations would proceed or what terms they were seeking to secure as part of a deal. Yet the passage of Article 50 through parliament went unimpeded.
Outside of the parliamentary paradigm, the question must be asked as to why several prominent figures and publications are openly pushing for no deal to remain in play in the event of a referendum (even if Theresa May successfully negotiates an exit deal).
In the event of no deal for instance, why are Tony Blair and others not recommending the options of extending negotiations vs. remaining in the EU? Should a deal be agreed, why are they not recommending a binary choice of accepting the agreement vs. staying in the EU? If no deal would prove as toxifying as they say, why suggest putting that option to the public in a referendum? Why advocate the risk of the UK dropping out with no deal?
No one should be in any doubt that another vote would become a platform for swathes of the electorate to communicate their sense of betrayal over a probable ‘soft‘ Brexit deal, or indeed no deal at all. And if that betrayal proved widespread, then the perception of a second vote healing divisions within society could easily turn into the perception of this being an attempt by the establishment to either prevent Brexit or push the country into accepting a deal that is more beneficial to the EU than it is Britain.
If a People’s Vote becomes a reality, it could end up facilitating the no deal scenario that remainers say they ardently oppose. Is this complacency on their part? Is it incompetence? Or is it something more nefarious?