That second referendum might just happen

Is there a majority in parliament for leaving the EU without a deal? No. Is there a majority for staying in the single market Norway-fashion for now? No. Is there a majority for Theresa May’s Chequers proposals? No. Is there a majority for a Canadian-style free trade agreement? No. Is there a majority for a second referendum? No. And is there a majority for calling a general election? No.

There isn’t a majority for anything.

So if the country isn’t simply to reach the end of March 2019 still debating as we fall off the cliff, someone is going to have to move. And it is this — not any of the arguments about not deciding to buy a home before you’ve seen it — that may yet produce a second referendum.

Neither Jeremy Corbyn nor Mrs May want another vote, but both may come reluctantly to the view that they are going to have to accept the idea.

Let’s deal with the practical questions first. If Britain decides to have a second referendum we will have to delay implementation of Article 50. The former foreign secretary William Hague suggests that if we took the decision in January we wouldn’t be able to vote until this time next year. That estimate is a bit pessimistic, but he is right to think that it couldn’t happen quickly.

The UCL Constitution Unit, in one of its recent papers on the mechanics of a fresh vote, suggests that even if legislation for a referendum was introduced when parliament returns on October 9, the vote itself couldn’t take place until March 28, the day before exit day. And this assumes parliament itself moves as expeditiously as possible.

Their calculation includes the Electoral Commission exercising its statutory duty to assess the question, which usually takes as long as 12 weeks using focus groups and survey research. The unit argues that this could be curtailed, but not by much.

Added to this, the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act specifies a ten-week regulated campaign period, allowing for the lead campaign groups to be identified and designated and for campaigning to take place.

Altogether, and taking account also of the time necessary to make physical preparations for the poll, the constitution unit thinks it is just about possible to do the whole thing, from day one of the legislation to the vote itself, in 24 weeks. In other words, if you decided to go ahead in January 2019, you might be able to have a vote by the end of June or early July.

Even at this breakneck speed, we would have to have the EU’s agreement to delay leaving while we hold this vote. Which is yet another reason why the union leader Len McCluskey’s idea of a referendum without “Remain” on the ballot paper deserves a prize for the stupidest proposal of the year. Despite clearly tempting Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, the idea is baffling.

The idea seems to be that voters are presented with two options. They can choose having no deal or having Mrs May’s deal. In other words select between two propositions both of which Labour opposes. Or maybe there would be a third option of approving Labour’s proposed deal, even though it hasn’t been negotiated yet and it probably can’t be.

I think we can all agree that nobody is going to allow us to delay Article 50 to implement that eccentric idea.

No, if there is going to be a second referendum, then it will have to have Remain as one of the options. And the other one will have to be whatever agreement (be it either a deal or no deal) that the government comes back with.

There has been a suggestion — by, for instance, the former education secretary Justine Greening — that the ballot paper could include three options (Mrs May’s deal if there is one, no deal whatever that means, and Remain). Presumably voters would pick between them by transferable vote, to avoid Remain winning just because the Leave options were split. Yet this would mean trying to overturn the result of one referendum using the alternative voting system rejected in another referendum. It’s not very tempting.

Mr Corbyn was attracted to the ridiculous McCluskey idea because he doesn’t want to stay in the EU and he worries about Leave voters who currently support Labour. He wants to force a general election. And he may be able to, as I will come to.

But what if he can’t? If Mrs May comes back with a deal of some sort, Labour will vote fairly solidly against it and may succeed by gaining the support of a few Tory MPs. If Mrs May holds steady, she will be able to win votes of confidence in the House. Her strategy will be to threaten Labour that we might fall out of the EU chaotically and it will be seen as having been largely responsible.

Mr Corbyn will know that he can’t hold his MPs for that outcome. Eventually they will vote for a deal to avoid chaos, as some of the were frank enough to tell journalists last week. But he can hold them if he endorses a proper second referendum.

What about Mrs May? The biggest practical difficulty in the way of a second referendum is that it requires government time to legislate and she, and the government, are dead set against it. At the moment.

She has always understood that the very idea undermines her negotiating position. What, though, if she secures a deal and parliament won’t pass it? What are her choices then? There are really just these: leaving the EU in chaos, having a general election or having another referendum. Would she really choose one of the first two?

And by the way, she would have to fight any general election having just been defeated in parliament in part by a defection of a section of her own party. It would certainly make the Conservative campaign interesting. No wonder Mr Corbyn wants one. But that would be her big alternative to a second referendum.

Because these alternatives are so unpalatable to the party leadership and seem to offer only a disastrous split or loss of office, there is a sort of assumption at the conference in Birmingham that it all just can’t happen. Somehow this choice will be avoided. I’ve talked to lots of MPs and advisers this week and they mostly shrug and says it’s a mess, but think it’ll work out all right in the end. Mrs May will bring back a deal and the dissenters will look calamity in the face and vote with her. Or a handful of Labour defectors will save the day.

But they really may not. A second referendum may be a horrendous thought — it might produce the same result as last time, it might produce a hideous stalemate with a narrow Remain victory — but, honestly, it might happen.

Daniel Finkelstein, journalist and politician.

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