Donald Tusk’s warning has been ignored
London4Europe Committee member Michael Romberg encourages us to seek to persuade our MPs to agree on a plan for a referendum.
On 10 April 2019, the European Council gave us an extension to 31 October 2019: 29 weeks. We have already lost five of them. It sounded like a long time; President Macron clearly thought so. But it wasn't. And it has not become any longer since. Donald Tusk’s warning has gone unheeded. MPs need to get on now with making decisions on how to use the time we still have left.
The wrong way forward: Brexit fudge
Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May spending weeks sitting down together to work out a Brexit plan to ram through Parliament is just what we don’t need. Their ideas on Brexit are almost the same. But the criticisms each heaps on the other’s proposal are valid.
I don’t mind whether the talks break down – as the politics suggest they will - or whether Corbyn and May agree a deal. What I care about is that the deal (Theresa May’s, a joint deal, some other deal) is put to the public in a referendum with Remain as an option. Only through a referendum can the country settle the debate, whichever way it goes.
The right way forward: a referendum
Think of all that we need to fit in if we wish the public to make a well-considered decision:
The UCL Constitution Unit found that would take at a minimum 24 weeks (5-6 months) from the introduction of legislation to hold a referendum. True, the Greeks held their bail-out referendum 8 days after announcing it; but I would prefer a more orderly process.
Perhaps public opinion will have settled on just one Brexit option; but I doubt it. We need Leavers to see the process as fair if the referendum is to settle the question. That means that all actually deliverable Leave options that have significant public support should be considered by the public. The fairest way of doing that is to have a two-round referendum where the first round identifies the best available Brexit and the second round chooses between that one Brexit plan and Remain. That would add another two months or so.
Brexit has exposed deep divisions in the two traditional main parties and means they are unable to deliver it. A set of regional citizens' assemblies could be used to inform Parliament's choice of questions to put in the first round of referendum. For a complex referendum it would be sensible to allow eight to twelve weekends of deliberation and a couple of months to set up. If there is not the time for citizens' assemblies to inform Parliament's choice of question they could still help voters make up their minds.
We also need to think whether our laws and procedures on electoral practice, fake news, data privacy, authentication of advertisements, campaign finance are up to scratch. Carole Cadwalladr who did so much to uncover the Leave campaign’s dubious use of Facebook in 2016 said in her April 2019 TED talk “It’s about whether it is actually possible to have a free and fair election ever again”. It will take a bit of time and effort to make sure that the answer to that question is Yes.
The message from the indicative time-tables is that six months is too short for anything but a bare-bones two option referendum; fitting in more is possible but presents real risks to the integrity of the process. Why rush something of such importance? The UCL Constitution Unit reached much the same conclusion. Anyway, we no longer have six months.
Therefore MPs and Government face an early decision: if they wish the next referendum to be an exemplar of how to make decisions well, to restore our reputation as a competent democracy, to settle the question then they will need to go back to the EU for a longer extension, though this time with a plan. They will have to be quick: the European Council meets 20-21 June; then not again until October 2019.
Composite indicative motions
MPs – at last the vast majority who wish to avoid a No-Deal Brexi - need therefore to focus quickly on the plan. This is where a multi-choice referendum can help. MPs should vote in the next round of indicatives not only on Brexit options but also on those same Brexit options coupled with a referendum. So not only a vote on Norway Plus but also a vote on Norway Plus with a referendum.
If several options are passed with a referendum attached - that's fine. Round 1 of the referendum chooses which Brexit option goes forward to Round 2 to be the sole Brexit chosen to set against Remain. Once it is clear that there is to be a two-round referendum, MPs should be generous in allowing any Brexit that actually exists and has public support to be in Round 1.
The results of the first two rounds of indicative votes already held tell us that there is no Brexit option that has a majority; nor does a referendum. But in combination - MPs will be on to a winner.
What we can do
We have to keep pressing MPs.
The temptation for politicians will be to continue to press forward with their own version of Brexit, or with cross-party talks (a real danger for us), or seeking a general election or a change of party leader, or various other displacement activities.
We should resume our campaign to influence MPs (addresses here) to move quickly to a plan leading to a well-conducted referendum. Our blogs provide some ideas to get you started on a letter.
The London4Europe blogs page is edited by Nick Hopkinson, Vice-Chair. Articles on this page reflect the views of the author and no necessarily of London4Europe.