Brexit referendums: best two out of three?
The five-day debate in the British parliament on Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal with the European Union did not start well for her. Everybody knows she hasn’t got the votes to pass the deal, but it turned out she hasn’t got the votes for lots of other things either.
It’s a rotten deal because it was bound to be. The EU is 27 other countries with a population seven times that of the United Kingdom, and it needed to demonstrate that Britain would be worse off by leaving. Otherwise other members might also decide they could cherry-pick the bits of the EU they liked and skip the rest.
So the EU countries stuck together, and May’s government was forced to choose between a “no-deal” Brexit that would cause chaos in the U.K. and the lousy deal the EU offered her instead. In a moment of sanity, she chose the latter.
The deal leaves Britain still part of the common market that the Brexiters wanted to quit and still paying into the EU budget, but no longer with any voice in the EU’s decisions. Moreover, Britain can exit that halfway house only with the consent of the EU.
That consent will be forthcoming only if May can somehow find a way to keep the border between Northern Ireland (a part of the U.K.) and the Republic of Ireland (which remains an EU member) “invisible.” Until then, Britain must stay in the customs union.
May’s deal was therefore never going to make it through Parliament. Those who don’t want Brexit will vote against it, but so will the real Brexiters, who see it as a betrayal of their fantasy.
And if party discipline is going to collapse anyway, then you might as well vote for what you actually want.
May lost three votes in Parliament on Monday, but the most important one took away her freedom to decide what to do next when her deal is voted down. Now, Parliament will decide what to do next — and it could choose a number of courses, including a second referendum on Brexit.
The second referendum has become the unicorn of British politics, a fabled beast that never shows up in real life, but there are unicorn droppings all over the houses of Parliament this week.
A majority of MPs always supported Remain, even if many hid their views to survive politically, but they have become an extraordinarily volatile group.
There are half a dozen possible outcomes to the parliamentary manoeuvring of this week, ending with the decisive vote on May’s deal on Tuesday, but several of them would probably lead to a second referendum that might reverse the Brexit vote of June 2016.
It would be a remarkable result: three years of huffing and puffing about “sovereignty,” followed by a meek resumption of Britain’s (quite advantageous) position in the EU.
Of course, the angry Leavers would cry “Foul!” and demand yet another referendum — best of three — or they could just take to the streets.
There are frequent veiled threats in the right-wing press that any thwarting of the Brexit dream by a second referendum could result in blood in the streets. That may be so, although it’s more likely to be another of those “Project Fear” (fear mongering) campaigns that have disfigured the entire Brexit process.
In any case, if it should ever come to street-fighting, the Remainers would win easily. They are, on average, 13 years younger than the Brexiters.