After long negotiation, Theresa May has agreed with the EU-27 a deal comprising a legally binding departure treaty setting out the terms for the UK leaving the EU plus a non-binding political declaration regarding the future relationship between the UK and the EU.
As well as covering the strictly required terms of departure, the draft departure treaty also contains forward-looking sections covering the Northern Ireland backstop to ensure there is no hard border in Ireland and a UK wide backstop with customs arrangements to avoid an internal goods border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK if the Northern Ireland backstop ever needs to be applied.
The government’s negotiated deal is widely unpopular, and many Brexiteers are hankering for a “No deal Brexit.” The tide seems to be turning inexorably towards Parliament seeking a referendum to ask the people what should happen next.
Which referendums merit respect?
My 2017 Conservative Home article “Why referendums are almost always a bad idea” explained the difference between two kinds of referendums:
- Referendums where one of the choices is “A pig in a poke”
- Referendums offering a choice between the status quo and a completely specified alternative
The 2011 Alternative Vote referendum was an example of a category (2) referendum. Unfortunately, the 2016 European Union membership referendum was a category (1) referendum.
17 million Leave voters were each able to vote for their personal vision of an idealised Brexit, unconstrained by the reality of what type of Brexit could actually be achieved if Leave won.
This difference between the two types of referendum is at the heart of my reasons for respecting the 2011 referendum, but not respecting the 2016 referendum.
What does a “No deal Brexit” look like?
No deal means no deal. There would be no separation agreement with the EU-27. How does one then divide up EU assets and liabilities including pension liabilities? The inevitable result would be international lawsuits, just like domestic divorces end up in court when the parting couple cannot agree a deal.
In such circumstances, the EU-27 would want to “nail the UK to the floor.” That is what I would do if I were representing the EU-27 and if the UK had walked away from its treaty obligations without a separation agreement.
I looked at this kind of world in my 2016 Conservative Home piece “Ultra-hard Brexit – a mathematical perspective.” At its most brutal, no planes would fly between the UK and the EU-27, and no goods would move by sea. This would be very harmful to the EU-27; the disappearance of all of their exports to the UK could reduce their GDP by around three per cent. However, for the UK the consequences would be catastrophic with an overnight reduction in GDP of around 10 per cent. When divorcing couples start throwing plates at each other, they have ceased to care how much damage they do to themselves; what matters is the damage they do to the other.
When ardent Brexiteers talk about a “No deal Brexit”, they do not mean the above.
Instead, they visualise a fantasy of the UK leaving the EU without the Government’s negotiated departure deal, paying nothing to the EU, but the EU-27 falling over themselves to give the UK everything that they declined to give May in her two years of negotiations.
At its heart, they have an extreme illusion about the relative negotiating power of the UK and the EU-27. For some of them, it is not even the 1950s but rather the 1850s when Britain really was the world’s dominant superpower; and could resolve minor problems overseas by “sending a gunboat.”
The second referendum question
I do not really want a second referendum. As I said earlier this year in “Brexit and the duty of every Parliamentarian”, if MPs consider that instructing the Government to remain within the EU by withdrawing the UK’s Article 50 notice is preferable to approving the Government’s departure deal, then it is their duty to do precisely that.
However, if Parliament is unwilling to carry out the above duty, and decides instead to hold a second referendum, then it must be a category (2) referendum.
The two defined choices should be:
- Leave the EU on the basis of the Government’s negotiated draft departure treaty plus political declaration.
- Remain in the EU.
Putting an undefined “No deal Brexit” on the ballot paper would be even more irresponsible than David Cameron putting an undefined “Leave the EU” option on the 2016 ballot paper. It would risk voters visualising their own personal fantasy “No deal Brexit” and then voting for that, leaving the Government to sort out a 2019 act of self-harm even greater than the 2016 act of self-harm which is what David Cameron’s referendum result constituted. Nothing should go onto a second referendum ballot paper unless it has been negotiated with the EU-27 and written down as implementable text, as Theresa May’s withdrawal deal has been.