There will be no second referendum whether Labour backs it or not

There will be no second referendum whether Labour backs it or not

Indeed, Labour best hope is to push for one – but to fail

Brexit is not unlike Hurricane Florence. A huge amount of energy is being expended, mostly to destructive effect, dumping a load of output which is flooding out a great deal else, while not going anywhere fast.

And just as Florence attracts storm-chasers, Brexit attracts any number of other eccentrics, on all sides, either to participate in the main thing or to chase rainbows. One such rainbow is the fabled second referendum (I reject the phrase ‘People’s Vote’, which is nothing more than a euphemism for a referendum and we’ve already had one of those; it’s particularly dangerously misleading in the singular). Almost since Remain lost the first vote, some Referendum Deniers have been agitating for a second shot but with Labour possibly about to back that call, we should think carefully about what such a change in policy would mean, both in terms of likely success and on how it’d affect politics more generally.

On the question of success, the answer is that it’s very low. Ladbrokes are quoting 9/4 on another referendum before the end of 2019. I think that’s far too short: the odds should be about 8/1. Why? Because it’s extremely difficult for an opposition to force a government to do something it really doesn’t want to do.

A referendum can only happen if the government wants one. Each needs its own legislation to compel councils to run the polling stations, postal votes and so on. Perhaps in theory the government could run it centrally by post but such a ballot would suffer credibility issues, could be subject to boycotts, and the result lack legitimacy if the outcome was close, as seems likely for any Leave/Remain option. So voting would have to be done the normal way, which means an Act of Parliament – and that only happens if the government drafts and introduces the Bill, and makes time for it.

Before we get a Bill though, there needs to be some consensus on what the question to be put is (or questions are). Is it a re-run of Leave/Remain, is it Deal / No Deal (assuming there is a deal), or is it a three-way choice. If the full options of Remain / Deal / No Deal are on offer, is the vote by AV or are there two questions (and if the latter, what question is put first)? Without that consensus, any campaign would suffer from too much infighting and too many divisions to effectively apply pressure to the government.

Also, there would need to be some thought as to what happens after the vote. So far, the discussion has barely progressed beyond “Brexit is awful, we must have a second vote to get us out of it”, which does at least give an answer to the “what question” question – though not one to interest a government currently negotiating Brexit – but pays no attention to the practicalities of what happens next (admittedly, not a failing unique to them but that’s not an excuse).

However, first of all, that legislation. Let’s suppose that by November we have both a deal in place, legislation ready to go before parliament, and a government forced into introducing it – all of which are bold assumptions. The first referendum Bill took over six months to go through parliament in 2015. Even if a new Bill could be rammed through in just one month – a process which would undoubtedly leave malcontent in its wake and set up allegations of unfairness, a rigged playing field and bias – the time available for campaigns to organise and register, and then for the vote to be held would be mightily tight to the March 29 deadline. In reality, we’re well past the point where it could happen before Brexit Day.

But suppose it could, because that’s the basis on which the rainbow is being chased. Were it to ratify the deal the government came back from Brussels with, no great problem. The other two possibilities, unfortunately, are a problem. And going by the polling on the Chequers Plan, the outcome would be one of the other two options.

The elephant in the room that advocates of a second vote are ignoring is the chance that not only does Leave win again but it does so on a mandate of No Deal. While the polling has trended towards Remain over the last two years, it’s been slow and having bagged their win, Leavers have been less prominent in making the generic case to leave and keener to debate the details.

Four weeks of “which part of Out didn’t you get?” could swing the polls around (note that in a second referendum, the Conservatives would undoubtedly by on the Leave side, something which would add about £7m to that campaign’s spending limit). Certainly, when the three options were put in opinion polls, No Deal was far more popular than something based on Chequers. And as Mark Carney pointed out this week, such an outcome would be considerably sub-optimal.

On the other hand, there’s the chance of Remain winning. Mainly, presumably, on a basis of nothing better being on offer. It’s notable how despite the opportunities of the last three years and more, keen Remainers are still instinctively drawn to some form of Project Fear rather than promoting the benefits of working together in a Single Market with common rules, consumer protection, mutual recognition of standards (and driving licences) and so on: the opportunities that membership brings, in other words. A win on such terms would be grudging and would do nothing to end the debate.

And of course, we don’t even know if Britain can revoke A50. An extension is possible – though even there, not necessarily an indefinite one – but an outright revocation, even with the agreement of all 27 other members is still something that the CJEU would need to agree. Further, current UK law probably doesn’t give the government the power to revoke A50: the EU (Notification of Withdrawal) Act only gave the PM the power to invoke the Article, not to withdraw it. Though presumably the legislation enabling the referendum could tidy that up.

The legalities are one thing: the politics another. Brexit has already been damaging to political discourse in the country, normalising extreme language and sharpening divisions (though it is both consequence and contributor there, and nor is it the only factor). Another referendum, whatever the outcome, would re-open all those divisions and pour acid into them. If one of the three options was excluded, one side would unquestionably call foul and claim, with justification, that they’d been denied their voice; on the other hand, if all three are there, Remain or No Deal would almost certainly win, probably not by very much. Either way, there’d be millions of mightily angry people and if it went for No Deal, there’d also be an economic crisis into the bargain. Either way, there’d probably be a new Prime Minister (though no new general election – the Tories and DUP would still hold a majority).

All of which begs the question as to why Labour are keen to go down that road.

The answer is that they’re not. I don’t think that many advocates share this analysis of how badly things would turn out. Labour would, of course, have their own divisions, as last time, but as they’d be nothing compared with the Tories. Perhaps that’s a price seen as worth paying. Of course, the foreknowledge of how torn apart the Tories would be is one reason, beyond the near-certainty of losing her agreement with the EU, that Theresa May will do everything possible to avoid another public vote.

But in truth, as mentioned earlier, there isn’t time without an extension to A50 to run a referendum, nor is there any easy parliamentary means for the opposition parties to force one on the government. It’s all very well Labour coming out in favour but while they sit on the opposition benches, they can’t do anything about it other than shout.

And just shouting is really what would suit Labour best in this case; appearing to be on the side of Remainers will win support – providing they never need to make good on it before the Brexit process is over.

David Herdson

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