DEBUG: blog_post
The right order of the questions
03 Feb, 2019

How to run a three way referendum

London4Europe Committee member and former Home Office senior civil servant Michael Romberg writes. The real choice is between one particular Brexit path or Remain? So a prior question is: which Brexit is best.

No-deal should be on the agenda

Although leaving the EU with no-deal fills most MPs with horror, it has the support of around a third of voters.  So if the referendum is to be healing, no-deal must be an option, unless public opinion shifts away from it.

Moreover, the "People's Vote" campaign for a new referendum has studiously avoided saying that Remain should be an option in order to maximise support for a vote amongst those who wish the options to be Brexit or Brexit?  The campaign can hardly turn around and say that was just a tease.

Rules for the referendum

The lesson of 2016 is that the options must be clearly defined and not dependent on the achievement of optimistic negotiating objectives. That would rule out many Brexit options as well as "Remain and Reform the EU".

The result from asking a single multiple choice question is heavily dependent on how the answers are counted, which does not give confidence.

For maximum clarity there should be two voting rounds

Three ways have been suggested for structuring the rounds. The UCL Constitution Unit report into the mechanics of a referendum discusses options more fully but it did not include my preferred option below.

Remember: we are not obliged to have Brexit. Consider: I decide to see a film. When I get to the cinema there is not any film actually showing that I wish to see. I am not obliged by my earlier decision to see a film I would not like. So the decision for the 2019 referendum is: is Remain better than any particular Brexit?

Dominic Grieve MP has suggested that Round 1 should ask whether voters accept the deal. If the answer is No, Round 2 would ask whether to leave with no-deal or stay in the EU.

Professor Vernon Bogdanor proposes that Round 1 asks whether voters still wish to leave the EU. If they do, Round 2 would offer a choice of Brexits (presumably deal and no-deal).

Professor Alan Winters proposes what economists call “Backward Induction”. Start with the final question: shall we go with this one Brexit plan or shall we stay in the EU? That would be Round 2. So Round 1 would establish what the best available Brexit is.

What is the real question?

Professor Bogdanor’s version means that Round 1 would just be a re-run of 2016. Even if Round 1 was decided in the knowledge of what the Round 2 options would be, it would still be a decision made by aggregating the vote for incompatible Brexits.

Dominic Grieve’s approach treats the deal as the do-nothing option. But it is just one of the Brexit options. It needs to be compared with other Brexit options before one can work out whether Brexit is better than Remain.

Professor Winters’ method of ordering the questions reflects how discretionary decisions are made. I decide to move home not out of necessity but because I would like somewhere better. I look at the available properties. I choose the best flat on the market. Only then do I make a final choice: the best available flat or stay in my existing home.

What will other voters decide

One cannot in any election avoid having to consider the expected behaviour of other voters. That is true of all three options here.

But both Professor Bogdanor’s and Dominic Grieve’s options require some pretty important guesswork. Some people might not like the deal but would prefer the deal to either one of Remain or no-deal. Or people might like Brexit under some models but prefer Remain to others.

Leavers deciding the best available Brexit in Professor Winters’ model need to consider which Leave option is most likely to obtain majority support against Remain in Round 2. At least that points them towards consensus. Those who prefer Remain to the other Brexit choice have their position safeguarded. Fundamentally the Round 1 question is focussed: which Brexit would be best?

Other Issues

There is a risk that those who wish to Remain try to game Round 1 by voting for the option least likely to succeed against Remain (or are thought to have done so). But as Conservatives who infiltrated the Labour leadership contest to vote for Jeremy Corbyn found when the 2017 general election came round gaming is harder to do than it seems.

Moreover, as all Brexit options would have real support amongst Leavers they can hardly complain if Remainers vote for them. And one can assume that many or most Remainers would vote for what they saw as the best Brexit if Brexit there has to be. 


The essential question in the 2019 referendum is to ask whether we should follow one particular Brexit plan or Remain. A 2-round referendum would allow the first round to choose the best available Brexit.

In order to win the acceptance of Leave voters after the referendum, all the Leave options that actually exist and that have significant public support should be included in the first round.




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