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Using the extension well: the process
12 Apr, 2019

Work backwards to make a plan

The European Council has given us a six month extension. The Government and Parliament are as capable of wasting that as they have wasted the past three years. So London4Europe Committee member and former Home Office senior civil servant Michael Romberg sets out a plan. A separate article brings the time-table together.  We also look at the time-table for how we would use a year's extension if we could get it. A companion piece sets out how the Remain campaign should use the time.


To make a plan, work backwards from what you are trying to achieve.


Final step: Implementation

After the referendum vote, the Government and Parliament need to act on the result:

  • Remain: there probably needs to be an act of Parliament to authorise the revocation of the Article 50 notification. The revocation needs to be sent in to the EU. It needs to be acknowledged by the EU.
  • Leave with a deal: the withdrawal agreement and political declaration may need to be renegotiated. They need to be ratified by the UK and EU institutions. There needs to be time for implementation.
  • Leave with no deal. Parliament needs to confirm the decision. There might need to be time for implementation. The date needs to be agreed with the EU and formalised, though the end of the extended Article 50 period would be the default.


Final referendum choice: Brexit or Remain?

Brexit is discretionary. Out of the universe of possible Brexits we can actually only choose one. So the final referendum decision is: Leave on this one Brexit plan or Remain.


Prior referendum decision: which Brexit?

There is dispute amongst Leavers about which Brexit to go on: No-deal, Norway Plus, Norway, Customs Union/ Labour’s Deal, May’s Deal.  Remainers also have a view.

Possibly public opinion will settle soon on just one Brexit option. More likely there will still be several in play.

The best way of ensuring that the referendum result commands universal acceptance is to have put before the people all actually available Brexits that command significant public support.

One way of structuring a multiple choice referendum is to have two separate voting rounds. The first round focuses on which Brexit to run with, so Remain is not on the ballot paper. The second sets that Brexit champion against Remain.

If there are more than two options in the first round there are various ways of counting the votes. All methods have flaws as well as advantages. But since all options tend in the same direction – that is, they are all variants of Brexit – the problems with multiple choice voting do not matter so much as they would in a ballot with say two Brexit options and Remain. That is why a two-round ballot is most likely to produce the result the electorate wishes.

Nor is there a real risk of Remainers gaming the choice: it’s too difficult to do, for one thing.


Parliament decides the questions

Given the time pressures, the Electoral Commission should start now to test the wording for a wide range of possible Brexit questions in order to have the results ready for when Parliament decides the questions.

Once Parliament has, with the benefit of the reports from citizens’ assemblies if they can be set up in time (see below), decided on the questions to ask it can go straight to settling the actual wording on the basis of the Commission’s advice.


Citizens Assemblies

Electoral politics always encourages over-promising – that is more or less inevitable. Brexit, largely founded on dreams, does so in spades.

The problem with Brexit is that the definitions have not been realistically put forward: too much have-your-cake-and-eat-it.

We should therefore set up a network of regional citizens’ assemblies to inform the debate.

Citizens’ assemblies are deliberative bodies. They reach conclusions and disseminate information. They cannot make decisions. Setting up more than one citizens assembly should lead us to expect different conclusions from the different assemblies.

We should not ask them to recommend what course the UK should take. Rather they should define what options are actually available, which are sufficiently different to merit a separate question, what the pros and cons of each are, and which have real public support.

If there is not the time for citizens' assemblies to inform the choice of question, they would still be useful to inform the public debate on the questions chosen by Parliament.

The UCL Constitution Unit held a Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit in 2017. Irrespective of the substantive views reached, the process taught a great deal about how to make assemblies work.



Parliament needs to set this process in train with a law. A law focussing on the key elements could be time-tabled to pass quckly: citizens assemblies, two-stage referendum.

In order to prevent opponents of a referendum scuppering the process it needs to be seen as fair by all sides. A two-stage process that lets all groups of Brexiters put their option forward has the best chance of success.

In parallel, taking the time to do so, Parliament needs to set up the mechanics and rules for the referendums. There are lessons to be learned to prevent unfair manipulation, for example. The Electoral Commission published a report on lessons learned from 2016. The UCL Constitution Unit set up an independent commission on referendums whose July 2018 report contains interesting recommendations. The Constitution Unit report “Doing Democracy Better” looked also at improving the flow of good information and ways of countering misinformation.


Decision on the path

Parliament needs quickly to pass a resolution on the path to take: citizens’ assemblies, two-stage referendum.

For citizens assemblies an early decision is needed on who is to run the process so that they can start work: Parliament, a government department, the Electoral Commission, a private body (eg UCL Constitution Unit) under contract with a public body.


Risks to the Time-table

It would be easy for Parliament not to use the time to obtain a referendum. Cross-party talks could drag on. The Government might collapse. We could have an inconclusive general election which would not resolve Brexit. There might be leadership challenges. MPs might be too unwilling to let even their preferred options be put to the people. One can easily see six months pass without anything useful being done.

We have to hope that MPs focus on the referendum as the way forward, both for Remainers and for those who wish to Leave but who can see that Parliament has not given a majority to any particular Brexit.



Whenever you draw up a project plan you always reach the same conclusion: you should have started ages ago. This project is no exception.

You could just about squeeze all this into the one-year extension that President Tusk had mooted.  The table in the separate article on a one-year time-table shows how. Perhaps if the Government and Parliament can set out a plan the European Council would give us an extension to next Spring.

But I doubt it. So we would need to run with a much compressed time-table. The chart in a separate article sets out how that might look

Moral of the story: MPs need to get cracking now.





The London4Europe blogs page is edited by Nick Hopkinson, Vice-Chair. Articles on this page reflect the views of the author not necessarily of London4Europe