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David Cameron was right not to prepare a plan for Brexit
29 Mar, 2018

Leavers still won’t take responsibility

Right from the outset after winning the referendum, Leave campaigners blamed David Cameron for not having a Brexit plan. But that was their responsibility. It is another brick in the case for a referendum on the terms. London4Europe Committee member and former senior civil servant Michael Romberg writes.

On 28 June 2016, just days after the referendum result, the Daily Telegraph published an Opinion piece under the title: It was David Cameron’s job to prepare Britain for possibility of Brexit. It exonerates Boris and others from the charge of not having a fully-fledged plan because they could not instruct Whitehall civil servants.

House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee

The same claim is made even by those who should know better. A year ago, on 7 March 2017, the Leaver-dominated Select Committee published its report on lessons to be learned from the referendum.

Paragraphs 162-173 discuss the level of contingency planning. The Committee heard extensive evidence from Sir Jeremy Heywood, Secretary to the Cabinet, on the differences between a referendum and a general election campaign.

In the run-up to a general election, civil servants study manifestos and meet the people who will run the new government if their party wins. In a referendum, it is less clear who will implement the decision, or what the status of campaigners’ views is.

Nonetheless, the Committee concluded that the Civil Service should have prepared for both possible outcomes and hold that with such preparation there would be no need for the Prime Minister to resign if s/he lost the referendum.

Brexit is not a technical exercise

This view is bizarre. It treats Brexit as a purely technical exercise where civil servants can create policy without political guidance and where Ministers can implement a policy to which they are fundamentally opposed. It is not how things work. Ministers believe in political views and set directions according to their views. (Even though Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn campaigned (feebly) for Remain, it is obvious that both see big attractions in Brexit.) Civil servants ignore their own personal politics and implement policies in the light of clear directions from Ministers.

In order to implement Brexit, civil servants need Ministers to tell them what it is for. Is it to control immigration? If so, to what end, and what cost is worth paying? Is it to enable ‘global Britain’? If so, what does that mean and what are the barriers to that ambition now? Is it to reclaim sovereignty? If so, what pooling of sovereignty do Ministers favour and which do they reject? What is it that Ministers hope to gain?

Civil servants cannot properly answer those questions on their own.

Nor could David Cameron. How could he have set the direction of a policy with which he so fundamentally disagreed? That might have worked if the referendum question had been Heathrow or Gatwick?  But Brexit answers/ asks fundamental questions about the nature of British society.

The struggles of both the Government and the Opposition to produce a credible Brexit policy just bear that point out. They also show how false Leavers’ claims are that the 2016 referendum settled questions like whether to leave the Single Market.

The Australian monarchy referendum

It can be done differently. For example, in 1999 Australia had a referendum on whether to become a republic. It did not ask an open-ended question, but rather about a specific form of republic which had been selected by a constitutional convention. The proposal was defeated because although there was probably a majority in the abstract for a republic there was not a majority for that – or perhaps any – specific form.

Competing proposals for a new Australian republic referendum seem to envisage a two-stage process. Either a specific choice between different models of republic followed by a monarchy or this-model-of-republic choice; or an open ended republic or monarchy question followed by a further question about the form of the republic, but where it is not clear whether monarchy would be an alternative in the second vote.

The responsibility of the Leave campaign

The repeated statements by Leave campaigners and supporters that it was the Government’s job to work out what they meant and prepare for it are just a sorry excuse for decades in which Leave campaigners complained about the EU and gave no thought to what should replace our membership. That of course - by allowing everyone to project their own idea of Brexit onto the question – maximised support for Brexit by avoiding the hard comparisons that would be made in a referendum on the terms, the informed choice that Leave are so keen to avoid.

So let's be clear: it was the responsibility of UKIP, the Leave campaign, the Conservative Brexiteers to work out what the proposition was that they would put to the country, to set it out for us all to read, and to have it assessed independently. That is the process that a party uses to put forward a manifesto, and that is the process that they should have followed.

Even now they will not take responsibility, for example just airily dismissing concerns about the Irish Border without saying credibly how they would make it work. The superficiality and incompetence of the Leave campaigners are their most striking characteristics.

How to Repair the Damage

There are two solutions to the problem of open-ended referendum questions.

One is to have closed referenda, a choice between two specific plans. The UK’s alternative vote referendum 2011 is another example of that. It did not ask “would you rather have some form of Proportional representation?” but whether to implement a specific legislative scheme (the alternative vote) that had been set out in an Act of Parliament.

The other solution is to have a two-stage vote. The first question is open. Then a plan is produced and there is a second vote to choose between the plan and not doing the plan.

Both methods work. In practice it might have been too difficult to have had a closed question on Brexit, though Leave should have done better than they did. But there is nothing wrong with a two-stage vote. We are in such a mess now because both main parties are treating the 2016 referendum as though it had been a vote on a plan which even now does not exist.

The solution is to obtain and win a referendum on the terms with the option to Remain.



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