As Theresa May negotiates our exit of the European Union, her government lurches from crisis to crisis. Whichever path she takes, the Prime Minister can expect a rebellion from at least one side of her party. And with an opportunistic opposition prepared to team up with the rebels, Commons defeats are a constant threat. We seem to be on an unstoppable path to crashing out of the EU with no deal, a result that nobody voted for and (almost) nobody wants.
The issue for May lies in the divisions within the House of Commons and her own party. The House of Commons overwhelmingly voted Remain in the 2016 referendum, but most have now reconciled themselves to the fact that the UK is leaving the EU. Taken as a whole, there is a majority in the House of Commons for a soft(er) brexit - staying in the customs union, retaining EU regulations and prioritising jobs. In the parliamentary Conservative Party, however, there is a significant band of Brexiteers who are holding May hostage, determined to deliver the hardest Brexit possible. Given the opportunity to wreak havoc on the Government benches, the opposition can be expected to vote with whichever set of rebels it thinks will defeat the Government.
Whilst it is essential that Parliament has its say on the Brexit negotiations, as well as a meaningful vote on the final deal, Brexit cannot be negotiated by MPs. It has taken two years to agree the Government’s negotiating position, which is now being torn apart by amendments in the House of Commons. Ironically, it is the Brexiteer MPs who are now ‘binding the hands’ of the Government by making certain aspects of their white paper completely illegal. The Government, fearful of a rebellion, accepted many rebel amendments.
The only way out of this mess is a People’s Vote on the final deal. The Government should be allowed to negotiate the best possible deal and the public should be asked to choose between the negotiated deal and remaining in the EU. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t say this because I think another referendum would be good, but because I think it is the best response to a bad situation.
Referendums are too binary, forcing people to give a yes or no answer to complex questions. They also lack any accountability, with campaigners over-promising and spreading misinformation, safe in the knowledge that they will not have to deliver on their claims. A much better way of involving the public in policy decisions would be a more deliberative and participative system. We should have proportional representation, so Parliament reflects how people have voted, and make use of democratic innovations such as citizens assemblies and participative devolution. Unfortunately for Brexit, however, it’s too late for that.
Because we started the Brexit process with a referendum, the only way to convey legitimacy on the final deal is another referendum. Currently, it is too easy for anyone and everyone to argue ‘this isn’t what people voted for’. We should have a public vote on the concrete proposals of a final deal versus reverting to our current EU membership.
The other aspect to consider is the legitimacy of the referendum we have already had. The Electoral Commission announced yesterday that Vote Leave broke electoral law, being fined £61,000 and referred to the police. There are also serious questions about the involvement of Russia in the referendum and many people dispute the claims of prominent Leavers, made during the campaign. These factors undermine the legitimacy of a Leave campaign endorsed by a slim majority of voters last June. Without a People’s Vote, those who broke electoral laws and cheated in the referendum will face no serious repercussions and the decision to leave the EU will be seriously undermined.
Some might argue that Brexit will lead to a far-right backlash, but as Jonn Elledge convincingly argues in the New Statesman, there is likely to be a far-right backlash regardless. The extreme right-wing bigots who have been emboldened by the Brexit vote are impossible to satisfy. A People’s Vote is at least an opportunity to rebuke them with a debate about a specific Brexit deal, rather than the undeliverable Brexit they were promised in 2016.
Finally, when discussing the People’s Vote, we should make the case that referendums can be done better. The Electoral Reform Society set out its recommendations for a better referendum in September 2016, including a longer regulated campaign period, powers for the Electoral Commission to intervene to prevent misleading information and guidance for public broadcasters and organisations on a more deliberative approach to referendum debates. Referendums will always be something of a blunt instrument, but it doesn’t have to be as bad as the one in 2016.
To ensure the legitimacy of whichever Brexit path we take and to give the public an opportunity to change their minds, I am reluctantly supporting a People’s Vote. It is in everyone’s interests, including the EU’s, to extend the negotiating deadline to allow for a referendum on the final deal. Brexit is the biggest political decision of a generation, we cannot be allowed to sleepwalk into it without a more constructive discussion. Whilst referendums are not perfect, a People’s Vote is the only way to legitimately allow the public a say on our final Brexit deal and break the deadlock in Parliament.