Nothing is as likely to be neglected as the obvious – and one obvious aspect of the EU referendum is that a vote to leave is not the same as leaving. If the British people vote for Brexit on June 23, which we devoutly hope they will, Britain will none the less still be an EU member on June 24. What happens next? The question was always pertinent, but it is suddenly especially topical. Six of the last nine opinion polls have shown a lead for Leave, there is a sense that purdah has ended Remain’s campaigning advantage, and perhaps for the first time it looks as though Britain could vote for Brexit.
In these circumstances, it was always likely that some pro-Remain MPs would begin to mull ways of at best thwarting, and at worst frustrating, a referendum vote by the British people to leave the EU. The Government, the official Opposition and the third largest party in the Commons are all for staying. So are perhaps two-thirds of MPs. The debate within Leave supporters over how leaving is best achieved (which encompasses disagreement about the role of Article 50 and the possibilility of a second referendum); the murky possibilities inherent in Commons procedure; the lack of a workable Conservative majority; the Remain sympathies of most MPs and, above all, the time lag between a referendum vote to leave and actually leaving – these together might provide means of salami-slicing a popular Leave vote until there was nothing much left of it.
Consider, for example, one possibility doing the rounds. A vote to leave the EU, some Remain supporters are saying, is no more than that: it is not a vote to leave the Single Market. MPs would thus not be dishonouring a referendum Brexit vote were they to vote for Britain to remain within the latter. There is plenty more. According to the Guardian, “one minister described the possible guerrilla campaign as “a reverse Maastricht”…one possibility for pro-Europeans would be to insert a clause demanding a second referendum on the terms of the renegotiation, or to run a guerrilla campaign to minimise the number of EU laws from which the UK would withdraw”.
Such calculations are not only complex for the Remain camp, but also bring their own complications for Leave. On the one hand, quite a lot of voters would rather like to quit the EU but stay in the Single Market. Were the referendum being held on that basis, many of those who plan to vote Remain would doubtless switch to Leave. On the other hand, membership of the single market (as opposed to access to it) would mean sticking with free movement, which in turn would mean no restriction on immigration from the EU. So were the referendum to be held on this basis, many of those planning to vote Leave would probably sit on their hands. At times, Vote Leave strategists have certainly been tempted to sell the referendum to voters as a revocable decision: vote against David Cameron’s EU deal now, the logic of this position ran, and you can vote again on a revised deal in a second referendum at some point later.
Amidst these swirling mists and slippery footings, it is important for Brexiteers to have a reliable map to work from: after all, the EU institutions and some national politicians have a long record of bypassing inconvenient referendum results. The best place to start is with the recognition that any Brexit decision will represent a clear call for lower immigration. A new Conservative Government would surely recognise this, and so should both houses of Parliament. Next, while the political norms dictate the use of Article 50 in the event of a Brexit vote – and perhaps quickly, too – those norms might not apply amidst the imponderables that such a vote would throw up.
Finally, whether or not a second referendum takes place is less important than the choices that such a poll might present. It would be unacceptable for such a poll to offer either a revised deal with the EU, on the one hand, or membership on present terms, on the other: that would be to cheat on a Brexit decision by the British people aside. Any referendum options would have to be either a revised deal – or nothing: just Out. This, in turn, leads to the most vital decision of all: namely, exactly when the Commons should vote to repeal the 1972 Communities Act (or take whatever action is necessary to establish the primacy of UK law over EU law).
The case for taking such action later rather than earlier is that a new Government should brandish the formal act of leaving the EU, like some sword of Damocles, above the heads of other European governments in order to help win better trade terms. The case for taking it earlier rather than later is that the longer leaving is postponed, the less likely it is to happen – and the more vulnerable a Brexit referendum decision will become to slender majorities, backbench machinations, and the passing of time: “if it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well/ it were done quickly”.
From where we all are now, it would be imprudent to fix on a set timetable – and impossible, anyway, since the referendum may well not return a Leave result at all. But one certainty shines out amidst the ambiguities, or should do for Brexit campaigners. A vote to Leave would be a vote to Leave. Brexit means Brexit. Out means out. If MPs tried to cheat the voters, they would risk a populist backlash. To defy the people would be to put their seats at risk.