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A referendum on the terms is the honourable course
11 Mar, 2018

A decision to go to the cinema shows why

London4Europe Committee member Michael Romberg illustrates why we should call for a referendum on the terms and why that is pro-democratic, pro good government, pro the will of the people.

“It’s outrageous that you ask me that again”

Let’s just rewind the conversation to see how we got there:

Jack: “Let’s go to the cinema”

Jill: “OK, there is a new Greek drama at the Curzon”

Jack: “I wish to see a comedy”

Jill: “There’s the new Woody Allen at the Electric”

Jack: “His early ones were so much funnier”

Jill: “There is that Japanese manga at the Renoir”

Jack: “I don’t like cartoons”

Jill: “There is a French comedy at the Lumiere”

Jack: “I don’t like subtitles”

Jill: “There is that one you marked in the reviews – it’s playing in New Cross at 21.20”

Jack: “two changes of trains to get there – no thank you”

Jill: “We could remain at home and have a pleasant evening with friends. Are you sure you wish to go to the cinema?”

Jack: “It’s outrageous that you ask me that again”

Let’s be realistic

I wish to have a referendum on the terms because I do not like the result of the last one and hope that it will be changed. Committed Leavers do not wish to have a referendum on the terms because they do like the result of the last one and fear that it will be changed.

But that does not alter the quality of the arguments of principle on both sides.

Let’s be principled

What are the principled arguments that Leave voters can make against a referendum on the terms. We can of course dismiss simple “will of the people”. Democracy does not stop on a day. If circumstances change people should have the chance to review their decision.

Against a referendum on the terms

The main argument that is put forward is that at the time of the referendum it was said that Brexit would mean leaving the single market. Therefore the Brexit on offer is in line with the referendum result. So there is nothing new to vote on.

There were Leave campaigners who argued for quitting the single market. The main Leave campaign group were certainly for quitting. Others were silent on it, in some cases leaving people to infer from hostility to immigration that we would leave, but not everyone will have been so au fait with the inter-connectedness of the four freedoms (Theresa May's government seems to be struggling with the concept). There was a lot of misleading talk about keeping access to the single market – meaningless, everyone has access; not all voters will have realised what that distinction meant. Farage used to talk a lot about the Norway model, though he explicitly rejected it by the time of the referendum campaign; but not everyone will have kept up with his shifting policies.

On the other hand, some Leave campaigners argued for joining EFTA and hence remaining in the EEA and the single market – some still do. The economic analysis undertaken by HM Treasury before the referendum looked at options including EEA membership; while Leavers rejected the conclusions they did not reject the inclusion of an EEA option. Surely the only view of the relationship between the single market and immigration that will have penetrated to all voters is Boris being in favour of having our cake and eating it. A poll commissioned by Professor Stephanie Walter two weeks before the referendum established that only 22% of Leave voters thought that “full access” to the single market was at risk.

The next argument is that the terms will be so vague that there is nothing to vote on – Keir Starmer uses this line, though it is part of his job to harry the government to make sure that the terms are clear enough.

However, the Framework for Future Relations will have to make clear whether we are heading for some variant of the Norway/ EEA model or of the Canada model. Those are the two options. The Framework will also make clear that we are not heading for have-your-cake-and-eat-it Brexit. From that core choice all sorts of decisions flow about how far we will be aligned with the European social model, the economic costs of Brexit, the nature of our relationship with the EU, the freedoms we will have.

Finally, there is the argument that as everything about the effects of Brexit is just a forecast and therefore unknowable, and the Remain campaign’s short term forecast of the effects of the Brexit vote was largely inaccurate, the electorate is no better placed to make a decision that we were in 2016.

We have of course learned so much about leaving in the past two years: the intractability of the Irish Border; that the EU has the upper hand in negotiations and is serious about the linkage of the four freedoms; that we cannot sign trade deals while a member of the EU; just how interconnected we are with Brexit affecting everything from the number of nurses to the availability of radioactive material to treat cancer; that EU agencies will leave the UK. Tony Blair’s Institute wrote a long summary.

Arguments for a referendum on the terms

Leave had no plan. There was no manifesto. Sure, individual leave campaigners made statements and so did the official Leave campaign. But those statements were not binding. Only the question on the ballot paper was and that gave no detail. The proof that there was no obvious single meaning to Brexit is that the Government has struggled to create a plan. Even now it does not have one.

But at some point the UK and the EU will have to agree the Framework for Future Relations under Article 50. Then, for the first time, there will be a plan. No-one takes a project from idea to implementation without reviewing the project plan.

A referendum on the terms would not be a re-run of 2016. It would be the next question in the series. First, Do you like Brexit-the-idea?  Then: Do you like Brexit-the-plan?  Asking the same people whether they like the plan is democratic. If they do, they can vote for it. Nothing is being taken away from Leave voters. The obstacle in their way is that they must put a cross on a piece of paper. Asking them to do that is hardly “frustrating the will of the people”.

Whose arguments are better? Let’s ask David Davis

Not the Davis of today, but the earlier Davis when he was still a backbencher and cared more about good decision-taking.

On 26 November 2002 Hansard reports him debating referenda for constitutional change and saying “We should not ask people to vote on a blank sheet of paper and tell them to trust us to fill in the details afterwards. For referendums to be fair and compatible with our parliamentary process, we need the electors to be as well informed as possible and to know exactly what they are voting for.”.

Yet the Brexit referendum was a blank sheet of paper and we are being asked to trust the Government to tell us what it means.

In 2012 he was arguing for a two stage referendum process. The first would confer a negotiating mandate on the government to improve the terms of the UK’s membership of the EU. The second would look at the deal and either accept it or vote to leave the EU. The context was different, but Davis was clear: the people should have a vote on the details of the deal.


If Leavers wish to avoid a review of the 2016 decision they are going to have to come up with some better arguments. A referendum on the terms would be the honourable, good government, way to stop Brexit.




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