Brexit: the problem with promising a second referendum

by Stephen Tall on September 22, 2016

I get why Tim Farron has promised the Lib Dems are committed to holding a second referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union.

There is a good principled reason for doing so. Regardless of what you think of Vote Leave’s campaign and its mendacious, swiftly abandoned, promise to spend £350m a week more on the NHS, the Leavers never set out their alternative. Deliberately so, as they knew they wouldn’t be able to agree with each other on what a post-EU Britain would look like.

Some, the ‘hard Brexiteers’, are perfectly happy to sacrifice single market membership in return for greater sovereignty (aka: keep the foreigners out). Others, the ‘soft Brexiteers’, think single market access/membership are crucial and are happy to sacrifice a bit of sovereignty in the break-up negotiations to retain it.

As yet, we don’t know Theresa May’s preference is, though we can guess, as a reluctant Remainer, it’s closer to ‘soft Brexit’. More importantly, we don’t know what deal she’ll end up with, given she’ll be under considerable pressure from the ‘hard Brexiteers’ in her party, two of whom (David Davis, Liam Fox) she appointed to key cabinet positions.

If what we end up with is ‘hard Brexit’ – no longer part of the trading community we signed up for in 1975 – it’ll be a very long way from what the Leavers promised just a few weeks ago.

In short, there’s no mandate for a ‘hard Brexit’. Under those circumstances, a second referendum isn’t just a legitimate ask, it should be a requirement.

HOWEVER… there’s a problem. That pesky Article 50, which Theresa May will need to trigger at some point in order to start negotiations with the EU. Once triggered, the UK immediately cedes control of what comes next.

Article 50 sets ticking the two-year countdown clock to full and formal Brexit. Officially the UK has to do a deal with the EU by then (‘soft Brexit’) or it will be out on its ear (‘hard Brexit’).

However, it’s likely that, with enough goodwill and pragmatism on all sides, a more sensible timeline and process will be agreed. This might then allow for an as-sensible-as-you-can-get Brexit deal, perhaps involving a phased UK withdrawal from the EU.

And that deal, argues Tim Farron, is what you would put to the British people in a second referendum.

The problem is, though, that the alternative the Lib Dems want – our current membership terms – won’t be an option by that stage.

Or, at least, the only way* that could be the case is if all 27 other EU member states agreed the UK could put both options to the voters. But why would they agree to us retaining our rebate and opt-outs and current preferential status after all the late night deal-making and gruelling summits the UK has forced on them?

It’s not impossible, but it doesn’t seem at all likely to me.

Which means that the Lib Dems have committed to arguing over the next few years for (1) British voters to over-ride their 23 June vote to Leave, and (2) the UK to retain EU membership on worse terms than those put to voters in the first referendum.

Good luck with that, guys.

* There is an argument the UK can un-trigger Article 50 itself, but legal opinion is divided on whether this is possible.