Oliver Letwin. Tom Watson. And Tony Blair.

All of them have in the past fortnight suggested the UK should first hold a 2nd EU referendum, and only thereafter hold a General Election. This is the opposite of the prevailing thinking in Westminster – that is that first a General Election should happen, and then only on the basis of who wins might there be a way to hold a referendum.

What are the pros and cons of each option? And who ought to argue for the respective options?

The argument to hold a 2nd referendum ought to be clear to anyone who has any problem whatsoever with the first referendum – that the proposition in 2016 (essentially the idea of Brexit set against the reality of Remain) did not answer the EU question decisively, that issues are still unresolved regarding the fairness of how the 2016 campaign was run, and also that it is clear that the House of Commons is not in a position to decide anything except being against No Deal and is incapable of backing any one specific version of Brexit. Radical Remain people may instead favour the revocation of Article 50, but as I see it the need to get some closure on this matter requires a further referendum.

Whether you want a referendum first, or a General Election first, depends on your take on party politics, on the enduring legitimacy (or not) of the 2016 vote, and whether you think that a General Election would likely end up with a majority to either bulldozer Brexit through, or to stop it.

The referendum first idea has appeal for anyone that wants to keep the Conservative and Labour parties together as broad alliances – both of the traditional parties are deeply split on Brexit matters. Holding a referendum before an election would allow these splits to be patched over a while longer, hoping all is still in one piece before a General Election rolls around. This is exactly the sort of argument that would appeal to Letwin or Watson, both somewhat estranged from the direction taken by their party leaders, but both hoping for futures still as respectively Conservative or Labour politicians. This argument ought to even appeal to someone like Lisa Nandy who fears Brexit tears apart the traditional alliance of voters who have voted for Labour.

Also the appeal of some sort of closure – and that sooner rather than later – is a strong one. A referendum could happen in spring 2020 and then everyone could move on (if Remain prevailed), or actually do Brexit with some degree of legitimacy and with a plan (if Leave prevailed).

Arguments against this route are also numerous. Firstly the time question – there is no way a referendum can now happen before spring 2020 (see this from UCL’s Constitution Unit) – and at the moment the discussion is about a 3 month Brexit delay, not a 6 or 9 month delay. Secondly there is no way a Conservative Government (and especially one under Boris Johnson) is going to take this route, so a caretaker administration would have to be formed first – and then this administration would have to hold for 6 months at least to get a referendum organised. Third, Labour has repeatedly said it wants a General Election rather than a second referendum – it would take quite a u-turn from them, and they would be taunted by the Conservatives that they were running away from the people. Fourth, with the alleged campaign misdemeanours still unresolved, and without complete clarity on what version of Brexit to put on the ballot paper in a referendum (see this November 2018 blog post of mine for more debate about how to formulate the question for a 2nd referendum), might all of this just be a repeat of 2016?

However if you look at how the election first route looks, it too is full of problems. The appeal of an election, and indeed the logic to hold one, looks obvious – Johnson’s government has a majority of -45, and Johnson himself has said he wants an election. And Corbyn has said for more than a year that he wants one too. In normal circumstances an election would be what you would get. Plus a General Election can be organised in 25 working days, meaning it could happen this autumn.

But it is not all so clear now Johnson failed to secure the 15 October election he wanted. Any poll would now be after 31 October (the supposed Brexit Day), meaning the Tories would have to go into a poll having broken their Brexit date promise, or possibly even with Johnson having had to resign as Prime Minister. On the Labour side, the polls do not look excellent – and not good enough to justify Corbyn’s bravado about an election.

Also what Brexit position would both parties even put forward? If Johnson tacks towards No Deal then he loses suburban London and Scottish seats. Tack towards a softer Deal and Farage roars back in the Midlands. Labour’s position is no simple matter either – try to negotiate a better deal from the EU, but then put it to a referendum and in any case campaign for Remain. Plus at the individual level both parties have huge headaches – what do the Conservatives do about the 21 MPs who had the whip removed? Could Labour manage to bring its pro-Brexit MPs like Nandy, Snell, Onn and Kinnock fully back into the fold? In other words an early General Election could actually make the cracks in both parties deeper than they are already.

As if that were not enough the rise of the Brexit Party and the return of the Liberal Democrats would make a General Election one of the least proportional ever run – that the Tories could secure a majority of the seats based on just 32% of the vote is not at all far-fetched. Hardly a legitimate outcome only then to force through a controversial Brexit policy! On the other side, were some kind of rainbow coalition able to govern they would then probably take the UK towards a referendum, with the headaches only enduring into summer of 2020. I do not think even the most committed Remain person could hope that one pro-Remain party could prevail enough to then be able to Revoke Article 50.

Overall the arguments are quite balanced here and if my favoured option of a really long period of reflection were not available, I would – just – favour the referendum first route. But whichever route is eventually chosen there are major and rather worrying hurdles to overcome, and politicians advocating either option ought to pay some attention to the many potential pitfalls listed here.

2 Comments

  1. I suggest the arguments in favour of a referendum first are stronger at https://fedtrust.co.uk/the-uk-needs-a-brexit-referendum-not-a-brexit-election/ I doubt the present party system could survive another referendum intact. Many thanks for all your good work.

  2. Hydroxide

    Given that an election is highly unlikely to in any way bring about clarity on Brexit and given that a significant part of the original negotiation period was already wasted on one that didn’t improve much of anything, I consider it very dubious to take a unanimous agreement to an extension by the 27 for granted if the reason given is to hold yet another election.

    A lot of people, from the electorate to MEPs to politicians are tired of the never ending Brexit business and by now prefer an “ending in horror” to a horror without end.

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