DEBUG: blog_post
Brexit or Brexit?
07 Sep, 2018

A false choice in a referendum

Those who claim that 2016 settled the principle and now only the method is up for discussion do not understand what a decision in principle is. London4Europe Committee member and former HM Treasury senior civil servant Michael Romberg writes.

What is a “Decision in Principle”?

It is not really a formally defined term. But the 2016 result probably qualifies.

Not only Leavers, but also about a quarter of Remainers believe that 2016 means that the decision to Brexit has been taken, and only the how (different options on the terms) is up for discussion.

But that misunderstands what a decision in principle is.

A decision in principle allows you to knock out an idea straight away, without bothering to think about practicalities, cost or any other consideration. But a project that passes the in-principle test just goes on the next set of questions that ask: is it a good idea in practice? Do I want it when it does not fall from the sky but needs to be paid for, comes with disadvantages and hassles as well as benefits. If the costs and risks outweigh the benefits, the project is reconfigured or dropped.

Parallels in other areas

You can see that with mortgages. An advisor states “An agreement in principle does not guarantee a mortgage” because “you will still need to produce the necessary documents to verify the figures you have been approved on, and also have the lender’s underwriting team assess the application as a whole and sign it off.”. The lender is not bound to go through on a decision in principle.

It’s just basic project management, here in a random guide found via the internet, in this case from Historic England. “The objective of the Start-up Stage is to develop the initial decision into a Project Proposal”. “Start-up concludes with the first Review Point, R1. Here a decision in principle is made as to whether the project is viable and justifies further planning.” After working up a full project case it moves to Review Point R2 “and a decision on whether to proceed with the project.” NB ‘whether’ not just ‘how’. The flow chart shows ’closure’ as one of the options for an R2 outcome.

So also with Brexit

Yes, the 2016 result was a politically binding vote to go forward to the next stage. At the next stage, when there is a plan, we review the project.

It is not as though the electorate had left the car showroom in 2016 with everything decided - make, model, engine, price - apart from which shade of blue to choose for the seat covers.

An analogy

A group of us decided to go together to see a film and to decide which one when we got to the cinema and could see what was playing. When we arrived, we found that there was no one film that most of us wanted to see. So a majority now want to go out together for a meal in a restaurant.

Theresa May would tell us that we had to see a film, as that decision had already been taken. She is the cinema manager and wants us to see a film, so I can see why she says it. (Not sure why Keir Starmer says it too.)

Her line is not sensible, and does not become wiser with repetition. The result of following her advice would be that most of us would be unhappy, and that we might split up into separate groups.


No-one takes a project from idea to implementation without reviewing the project plan and making a decision based on a full assessment of costs and benefits, risks and opportunities. If the same people make the review decision as made the initial decision then it is democratic – the people cannot betray themselves. The next step for Brexit is a referendum on the terms with the option to Remain, a People’s Vote, giving us the Final Say.



Articles on this page reflect the views of the author and not necessarily London4Europe.