If No Second Brexit Referendum, Then What?

The idea of a second Brexit referendum has been around since the results of the first one (52%: “Leave”, 48% “Remain”) were announced. (Without a doubt, had the close result been the opposite, Leavers would have brayed for more referendums. This is one of many reasons referendums are almost never a good idea, David Cameron.) On January 15, Parliament rejected, by an historic margin, Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal with the EU, which she had spent two years negotiating. She has since survived a no-confidence vote and made clear that there is no “Plan B” and no substantive changes to the negotiated deal are forthcoming. The likelihood of a “hard” Brexit (leaving the EU without a deal, which risks immediate chaos) is now higher than ever. So, the nation turns its nervous eyes to a second plebiscite.

There are some good reasons to back a second referendum. A functioning representative democracy should constantly revisit issues, especially ones of enormous consequence, because new information and circumstances could yield different preferences. A second vote may bring some much needed clarity to a deadlocked Parliament.

The circumstances, however, appear to be dissuasive enough for the Labour front bench. There’s a strong likelihood that a second vote would be just as narrowly decided as the first, which could be catastrophic to an already traumatized public. Advocates for a second referendum argue that the country is already divided, and if a Brexit deal that nobody likes goes through, then those divisions would continue anyways. This assumes that those divisions are already fully exposed and won’t play out any more (or worse) than they have.

Then there’s the issue of what choices the referendum should offer. Deep breath:

There are four possible options to be sorted: leave under the deal set out; leave with no deal; seek a new negotiation to leave; or stay in the EU. This then opens up several permutations of two-option questions, many of which would be unpalatable either to remainers (the government’s deal or no deal) or to leavers (the government’s deal or remain). Some MPs are therefore pressing for a multi-option referendum, whereby voters could, for example, pick between the government’s deal, no deal, or staying in the EU. It would also be possible to have two successive single-question votes, for example first asking if people accept or reject the deal, and if they decline it, whether they would then prefer no deal or staying in the EU. All these entail extra complications, not least on timing. (The Guardian)

But just as talk of a second referendum was becoming frothy, Labour turned down the heat. On Thursday, a cross-party group of MP’s who support a “People’s Vote” did not table the motion due to a lack of support from Labour leaders. On Friday, a senior Labour MP penned an op-ed arguing the best way to end the crisis is not a second referendum, but a … Labour government. Was he not around for the no-confidence vote May won? And it would be a Labour government led by a Euroskeptic socialist–which is precisely the wrong kind of socialist for the moment.

Despite the fact there isn’t a referendum in the works, organizations are free to conduct their own designed polls that can yield some insight into British preferences. The most interesting one I’ve found so far was conducted by Number Cruncher Politics. The poll asked a variety of straightforward questions and found, like most other rigorous polls, strong divisions: 37 percent prefer remaining in the EU, 29 percent prefer leaving with no deal, and 23 percent prefer leaving with May’s deal. But then it asked something interesting: Of those outcomes, which would you find personally acceptable or unacceptable? Not surprising: remaining in the EU was acceptable to 48 percent and unacceptable to 41 percent, leaving with no deal was acceptable to 45 percent and unacceptable to 39 percent.

Basically, Remainers preferred remaining and hated leaving with no deal and vice versa for Leavers–so, extremely divisive. But here’s the surprise: 49 percent said they’d find May’s deal acceptable, only 30 percent said unacceptable, with 21 percent undecided. A cold comfort emerges: Nobody likes May’s deal, but a potential strong majority does not dislike it more than the alternatives. If May’s deal is ultimately accepted, Britain will be reunited under that most British of emotions: resigned gloom.

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Joshua Alvarez

Joshua Alvarez is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal. He edits syndicated opinion columns at the Washington Post, and can be reached at joshuaalvarezmail@gmail.com.