An anti-Brexit demonstrator waves a Union flag, also known as a Union Jack, with an European Union (EU) flag outside the Houses of Parliament in London, U.K. (Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg)

Theresa May’s Nuclear Option for Brexit

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The two sides in the great Brexit debate finally found something they can agree on: hatred of Prime Minister Theresa May’s European Union divorce-settlement plan. A growing number of the combatants even agree on the solution. That would be a second vote on whether leaving is a good idea.

Leavers complain that the approach May laid out last week aligns the U.K. too closely with the EU. Nine members of May’s government had resigned by Monday. Remainers argue that the result is so inferior to Britain’s current relationship that it’s not worth voting for.

On Monday, May was forced to compromise with hard-line Brexiters on her plan for a new customs arrangement. But the modifications she accepted to prevent a defeat in Parliament will make the plan an even harder sell in Europe. It was a reminder of how her Conservative Party government is hanging by a thread. With the public skeptical, legislators in revolt, businesses ringing alarm bells and the EU unbending, it’s no wonder that a revote on the 2016 Brexit referendum is starting to look like the only way to cut through the knot of opposition from all sides.

A number of prominent Remainers have been calling for a second referendum for some time, but on Monday an influential Conservative voice, former education secretary Justine Greening, joined the chorus.

“The only solution is to take the final Brexit decision out of the hands of deadlocked politicians, away from the backroom deals, and give it back to the people,” she wrote in the Times of London.

The government has officially refused to consider a second referendum. That’s hardly surprising from May, who still wants to push her plan through and was burned badly when she called an election in 2017, but it doesn’t mean a second vote won’t happen at some point. Calls for a new vote are growing. And the fact that Britain’s Electoral Commission has just fined the Vote Leave campaign and reported it to police for exceeding spending limits during the referendum campaign will bolster arguments for a second vote. The question is whether a new Brexit vote would make a difference and be accepted.

It would certainly make a difference if the decision were binding and the choice clear. But the bar is high: Ask the wrong question at the wrong time and a second referendum could (hard as this is to fathom) make things even worse.

As a new report from the Independent Commission on Referendums notes, referendums are best held at the end, not the beginning, of a decision-making process. A major problem with the first referendum was that voters were presented with a choice between a known quantity (EU membership) and something both unknown and undefined (Brexit). There was no attempt before the EU referendum to get agreement about what form Brexit should take; the two years since have been consumed with battling over that question. So any new vote would have to be on a clear, negotiated outcome that Parliament is ready to implement.

Another problem with the 2016 EU referendum was the binary nature of the question: The simple in-or-out choice made nuance impossible, creating an atmosphere in which any compromise is considered a sellout. Binary choices are polarizing and provide little information on what voters really think.

The alternative to a binary vote is a referendum with several options, as Greening suggests, and preferential voting. While the U.K. has no tradition of multiple-option ballots (one was used in 2013 on the island of Jersey, which is a U.K. dependency), in this case it makes no sense to rule it out.

Here, there are three possible choices for voters: remain in the EU under current membership terms, leave with an agreement the government and the EU have reached and which Parliament has accepted, or leave with no EU deal at all. In a three-way ballot with preferential voting, if no choice achieves 50 percent, the third option is ruled out and those whose first option finished third in the voting would have their second preference counted, until one preference had over 50 percent.

The obstacles here are many. For one thing, it would require the government and the EU to reach a withdrawal agreement and Parliament would have to show its willingness to approve it. So would a majority of EU member states. That’s quite a stretch.

It’s also difficult to imagine hard-Brexiters signing on to those terms. The Greening choices, which are the logical ones since each scenario is clear and legislatable, would leave both sides with a stark choice. It would force those Remainers who say they want to respect the referendum result, but who really just want to stay in the EU, to own up. And it would force those Leavers who say they are concerned about economic consequences of crashing out without a deal, but who really want to leave at all costs, to do the same. Neither should feel overly confident in the outcome.

Another obstacle is timing. None of this can work without an extension to Article 50, the EU treaty measure that started the two-year countdown to Brexit that runs out in March 2019, at which point the U.K. leaves the EU, deal or no deal. 

It took former Prime Minister David Cameron seven months to get legislation through Parliament approving the 2016 referendum. The Electoral Commission recommends “at least six months” before referendum legislation is implemented. Campaigns last 10 weeks, going by the last one. Even if all those timetables could be accelerated to warp speed, May would have to ask the EU to suspend Article 50 in order to hold a referendum. It is in the EU’s power to grant such a request, but it would require unanimity.

There’s another problem. Whatever the EU and the U.K. agree to, assuming they can agree on something, it is not the final future trading relationship. What is being negotiated now is the withdrawal agreement plus a broad outline of the terms of the future relationship. So there is, even with the clearest possible multiple-option ballot, a leap of faith required of any voter who says yes to the negotiated deal.

Even with a negotiated deal, an Article 50 extension and parliamentary support for a multiple-option referendum, some people will consider a second Brexit vote undemocratic. If a second vote makes sense, then what about a third? This argument, however, looks weaker by the day. Nobody knew what Brexit meant in 2016, least of all those advocating it. Now everyone has a better idea of the complexities involved and the difficulty in getting political agreement is painfully clear.

I argued last year that a second referendum was an idea whose time hadn’t come. Increasingly, it’s looking more like a nuclear button the prime minister may just have to press.

Therese Raphael writes editorials on European politics and economics for Bloomberg Opinion. She was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.

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