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Brexit: A Re-Referendum Draws Closer?

British Prime Minister Theresa May holds a news conference following a European Union leaders summit to discuss Brexit in Brussels, Belgium, April 11, 2019. (Yves Herman/Reuters)

Fresh from her interesting decision to allow the Chinese company Huawei to help build Britain’s new 5G network, British prime minister Theresa May is apparently returning to Brexit, the scene of earlier blunders. She is planning yet again to ask Parliament to approve her Withdrawal Agreement, the first stage in a Brexit that would combine the servility of the softest Brexit with much of the self-harm of the hardest. It will probably be rejected once more.

May’s willingness to risk this humiliation is, almost certainly, a desperate attempt to stop U.K. participation in the elections to the EU Parliament late next month. Those elections will result in a disaster for the Tories and, as matters now stand, a significant showing for Nigel Farage’s new ‘no deal’ Brexit Party.  A Brexit party success would consign the Tory party to a level of hell even deeper than the one in which it already finds itself.

If the Withdrawal Agreement fails to win parliamentary approval, the underlying facts will remain the same, almost regardless of the EU election results. With the Conservative leadership refusing to countenance any type of Norway option (the Brexit mechanism that was — and still is — the cleanest Brexit), and with the EU refusing to reopen talks on the Withdrawal Agreement, Parliament will have to come to a decision before the revised (and, I think, final) Brexit deadline of October 31. If it has not approved the Withdrawal Agreement by then, it will have either to accept that Britain crashes out of the EU without a deal (something that, wisely, it has already said it doesn’t want) or it will have to abandon Brexit altogether (something that the UK can do unilaterally by revoking its notice to quit).

Regardless of the merits (or otherwise) of the last of these options, a revocation decided in Westminster alone will fuel a narrative of betrayal that is already well underway, adding a further large dose of poison to what is already a poisoned political landscape.

If the referendum is to be reversed it should, therefore, be by means of a referendum, both for the health of Britain’s democracy and as a matter of logic. The referendum was binary. The mechanism that confirms or reverses it should be binary in a way that a general election (another mooted alternative) is not.

That raises the question as to what the question posed to the voters would be. As Rupert Darwall noted in a recent piece for CapX:

Understandably, but a tad dishonestly, Remain supporters are pushing for a referendum on May’s deal or Remain. The dishonesty arises because it is two questions rolled into one: “Remain or Leave?” and “Do you approve of May’s deal?”

In arguing for this choice, Remainers know well that there are quite a few Leavers who would prefer to remain rather than leave on May’s terms.

That leaves what Darwall sees as (under the circumstances) the better alternative, simply repeating the question asked on the 2016 ballot: Remain or leave?

He concludes:

Supporters of Brexit need to prepare for a second referendum and, in due course, start advocating one. It could turn out to be their last chance.

But even if the question were simply a repetition of what has been asked before, voters should be under no illusion that the decision would be the same. What they will be voting for this time is a choice between staying in the EU or simply leaving without a deal. If the decision to quit is confirmed, Brussels will have no appetite for any further negotiation.

That Brexit could well end up being decided in this manner is mainly (but not exclusively) the result of the dance of dunces between an astonishingly incompetent government and a hard core of Brexiteers who saw realism as defeatism and mistook their own ignorance for strength.

They may not be dancing on Brexit’s grave, but they are, I suspect, digging it

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