Both the timetable and the politics make it all but impossible
It’s the Remainer dream that won’t go away. Indeed, it’s as if they’ve never woken up to the strong coffee the electorate served on the fateful night in June 2016. They want to believe that the fight is still on and continue to make the case that they should have made better before EURef1. It isn’t still on and the dream is just that: an hallucination in the dark.
There can be no EURef2 both because the politics don’t allow it and because the timetable doesn’t realistically allow it, even though Brexit Day remains nearly 14 months into the future.
In truth, there are two referendums that opponents of Brexit are touting for – which is itself a reason why it won’t happen: only groups which have a very clear aim and can mobilise great force behind it can overturn the political establishment. With no agreement as to what their detailed objective is, such energy as the Continuity Remainers have is dissipated. Do they want a re-run of the original vote or a confirmatory ballot on the Article 50 agreement? The tactics are as yet unclear.
Let’s pause that question for the moment and look at the logistics, which are similar for either route. Although 14 months might seem a long time, in truth, it isn’t. If the vote is on the same question, the latest it can realistically be held is in the late autumn of this year. To go into December would clash with Christmas, as would a January ballot, and any later than that wouldn’t leave sufficient time to either reverse the A50 notification (if that is indeed possible), or to confirm an exit deal – depending on how the vote went.
So, if the vote was no later than November, that means that all the campaign registrations would need to be in place for September, which in turn means that the legislation would need to be signed off before the summer recess. It’s true that where there is consensus, legislation can be rushed through parliament very quickly – in days or even hours (the Abdication Act of 1936 received royal assent the same day it was introduced) – but a second EU Referendum Act would not be like that for two reasons.
The first reason, which is obvious, is that there would be a great deal of opposition from MPs who believed that the vote has already taken place and that the mandate should be respected (most, but not all, of whom supported the winning Leave side). Let’s also put aside the party politics here for the moment.
The other reason is that even if Leave MPs were minded to let such a bill through, there would still be a mighty battle over the details. In Tim Shipman’s outstanding All Out War, he identified five crucial procedural or legislative victories that Leave MPs (led by Steve Baker, of recent controversy), won that was almost certainly critical to their winning the vote, given the closeness of the final result. The point here is not the specifics as such (which are in chapter 6 for those interested), but that the specifics have a very real effect and that there would therefore be battles over them. The 2015 Act didn’t receive royal assent until a little under 7 months after it was introduced. Even if we accept that a sense of urgency could condense that process, we’d still be surely looking at a minimum of 3 months for the legislation to pass Commons and Lords – so publication would have to be no later than early April.
That’s the true deadline for a re-run of the EURef: two months for the government (or a government) to commit to a new vote and for it to draft and publish legislation to enable it.
And yet where is such a government going to come from? No Conservative PM could possibly introduce such legislation in the current climate and apart from anything else, May is far too weak and even if she were deposed next week, it’d still take the best part of the two months just mentioned to election a new Conservative leader – who would have to be either an original Brexiteer or someone who was utterly signed up to making Leave work. Either way, it’s no new referendum.
Might a Labour government take a different course? Possibly, even under Corbyn, it would – but how does a Labour government come about? They don’t have the votes in the current parliament and even if the DUP were to find some reason to withdraw support from the Tories in the next few days, an election wouldn’t occur until our identified deadline of early April (although possibly a Labour majority government could push the Bill through faster) – but this is loading profound improbability upon profound improbability. In truth, the door has already closed.
What then about the possibility of a ratification vote on the A50 deal? That would presumably have to occur early in 2019, in which case there’s still time to put the arrangements in place – though again, not by much: we’d still probably need a Bill introduced no later than May. That again makes the domestic politics extremely difficult to square with the outcome.
And then there’s the international politics: the diplomacy. This is the angle simply not being considered by those whose advocacy of an EURef2 is driven by a determination to stop Brexit so strong that it’s blinded them to all other outcomes.
If Britain was to go down the road of initiating a second referendum – a process which, as mentioned, would take several months – the withdrawal talks would inevitably become even more difficult for Britain as the EU waited to see what the UK electorate did second time round. How could a British government negotiate withdrawal during that period, when the rug could so easily be pulled form under their feet by the voters?
Even more importantly, what happens if the public do not play ball, as they may well not? It’s true that most recent polls have suggested that a slim majority now would have preferred the UK to have stayed in the EU but it is slim, with low single-figure leads being the norm. Given the scale of Remain’s lead before EURef1 that’s not anything like comfortable, particularly as very few have been making the case for Brexit in principle of late, rather than the case for honouring the referendum mandate – and in any second vote, it’s unlikely that the Conservatives would remain neutral as before.
What happens if the public vote to Leave again in a late November vote? At best, it would require an extension to the A50 period; at worst, it’d mean almost certainly either crashing out with no deal or accepting more or less whatever the EU put on the table before the December summit.
Even worse, what happens if the public voted down a ratifying referendum after a deal had been reached? This point also applies to parliament who theoretically could vote down the deal – though if they do, they at least will do so far more quickly, giving a little time to sort it out. In fact, probably the biggest risk to the whole process is that the European Parliament votes the deal down – but that’s a scenario for another day. At least if Westminster says No, it would probably do so in December, giving a little time for May or her successor to sort something out. Were a referendum to go down in late February or March, there’d be no time for a repeat. Some seem to hope that without a deal, the default would be to remain. They are wrong: the default still be to leave.
But it doesn’t matter. These political-diplomatic tangles are simply additional reasons why MPs will not go down the road of offering a second referendum, on top of the straightforward one that enough of them don’t want to anyway and the boring but very real one that even if they did want to, time has essentially run out.
None of that will stop campaigners from demanding that the political world stop turning and conform to their own preferred laws of physics but their appeals will go unheeded. It’s all a Westminster show now.