Theresa May has today announced the triggering of Article 50, the beginning of the two-year negotiation period for leaving the European Union. You can read reports of that here, here and here. Other news outlets are, of course, available.
No doubt some will hail this as ‘independence day’ (they shouldn’t because it’ll be two years before we leave). Others will cast our leaving the EU as the beginning of the apocalypse (though not certain premillenialists with a very niche view of the EU’s role in ushering in the eschaton). What we know for certain is that – barring a return of the Lord in the meantime – come 2019 the United Kingdom will be out of the European Union.
Tim Farron, leader of the Liberal Democrats, today argues that the government should offer a second referendum on the final Brexit deal. Naturally, a man leading a party that won the same number of seats across England, Wales and Scotland as the Democratic Unionist Party managed in Northern Ireland is a man with his finger on the pulse of British opinion. Never mind the fact they were bludgeoned into fourth by a provincial party that stood nowhere outside of Scotland. Ignore that they are equal to a party losing its dominant grip in Northern Ireland and shedding support by the day. Do not focus on the fact that, even apart from seats won, on share of the vote (one of the Lib Dems favourite arguments of old for PR and in favour of their popularity) the Liberals Democrats were beaten to fourth place by UKIP. It’s not that the Liberal Democrats shouldn’t have a voice – of course they should – it’s just these things are important to remember when Tim Farron claims to speak on behalf of the people, or the silent majority, or whatever other euphemism covers up the fact they are simply not that popular.
Farron’s argument is problematic for a number of reasons. Most obviously, Article 50 has now been triggered. The only thing that is certain now is that we will exit the EU within two years. To offer a referendum on any potential deal would shorten the time available for agreeing a deal in the first instance. Inevitably, a referendum requires a period of campaigning. More to the point, even apart from time, what happens if (as Farron seems to suggest we are likely to want to do) the British public reject whatever deal is reached? We can’t untrigger Article 50. At best, a referendum increases the likelihood of our leaving the EU with no deal whatsoever, the very situation the Liberal Democrats argue would be the worst of all worlds
It is certainly true that the British public did not vote on what sort of deal they wanted from Brexit. All we can credibly ascertain from the referendum is that the British public voted to leave the European Union. It is quite right that the terms of our exit are entirely up for debate. Nevertheless, it would seem an incredible move to throw back any potential deal for a further referendum. Not least, there is unlikely to ever be a clear outcome. Around 48% of the country voted to remain in the EU and among the 52% that voted to leave there will be a range of different opinions. Agreement on the specific deal is highly unlikely to be found via a second referendum.
Given this, the most likely outcome would be to reach the end of the two year negotiating period and leave the EU with no deal whatsoever. Why would the Liberal Democrats want this to happen when they have been adamant nothing could be worse? Might it possibly be that they are seeking to play politics, encouraging the very worst possible result (as they see it) for the purposes of pinning the blame on the incumbent government?
Nobody is arguing the government should not be held to account. That is why we have an opposition. But the Liberal Democrats are wrong to infer that leaving the EU with no deal would be the worst scenario. The worst scenario would be to retain every element of EU membership whilst removing ourselves from EU membership. The reason this would be the worst case is not because it would be financially ruinous or politically problematic. It is because such a move would clearly undercut the first referendum result. Whilst we don’t know the specific deal the British public want – there was no vote about that – we do know they want to leave the EU. To therefore leave in name but remain in all the institutions and act as de facto members is to hold the British public in contempt. It would be better to leave with no deal and uphold the principles of democracy than to forge a deal that does despite to the wishes of the British voting public.
Does it not seem more credible for parliament to hold the government to account? It makes more sense for parliament to vote on the Brexit deal. They are the ones the British public elected. It would not undercut democracy for those representing us to have a say on the final deal, so long as it upholds clearly expressed will of the people that we are to leave the EU. They would also be aware of the reality that rejecting the deal on the table is likely to lead to no deal at all. They can, therefore, weigh the relative merits of the deal in light of the alternative.
The first referendum was an abdication of responsibility by our elected representatives, who used their prerogative to defer power directly back to the people. The British people made their wishes clear on the question presented. It is now for our elected representative to carry out the result. The government should not, of course, be given a blank cheque. But nor should the British public be given another referendum that will almost certainly mean we end up leaving with no deal whatsoever. If Tim Farron honestly believes leaving without a deal would be the worst possible scenario, he should rethink his position on a second referendum.