Clue: it’s not “Brexit?”
London4Europe Committee member and former senior civil servant Michael Romberg writes.
A general election chooses the next government. A referendum provides a mandate to take forward a specific policy direction.
First-past-the-post (FPTP) means that most votes are irrelevant because most seats are safe. The choice is narrowed normally to two parties. A referendum has a single national count where each vote counts equally.
Could a general election nonetheless resolve Brexit? Brexit is at the top of voters’ consciousness. But other issues are also at the top: economy, NHS, crime. Voters also ask who would be the best Prime Minister, which party do they trust.
Brexit cuts across party lines. So you have anti-Brexit candidates standing for pro-Brexit parties and vice versa. So what does a vote for such a candidate actually mean? Tactical voting further obscures the message of a vote.
In 2017, the Liberal Democrats did not score 48% of votes (actual: 7%). The bulk of the Remain vote went to parties backing Leave who picked up 86% of the vote. Perhaps the Liberal Democrats could overcome the problems they and any third party would face under FPTP and win the election on a Remain platform. But nothing in the polls suggests that is even remotely on the cards.
And what if the Liberal Democrats had won? Could the new Parliament just have set aside the Brexit referendum? In law, yes. But as a matter of political reality, no. No-one would know whether the vote had been driven by Brexit or not. Having begun with a referendum, only a referendum can settle the question.
The Brexit choice in a 2019 general election
Jeremy Corbyn’s Brexit is much the same as Theresa May’s. Both wish to stay close to the single market – but it cannot be that close as both promise to end freedom of movement and Corbyn wishes to break with state aid rules. Corbyn’s customs union would be permanent and Theresa May’s temporary – but it is hard to see what arrangements could supersede it that did not include a permanent customs union. Corbyn’s Brexit contains a lot of fantasy elements that have been shorn from May’s and that also would be cut away if he did get to negotiate with the EU.
So for sure a general election could choose which of the two main parties was the better to negotiate Brexit. But the Brexits on offer are so close as to be not worth arguing over.
Could one of the main parties revolutionise the election by promising a referendum? Possibly. But given the past statements from both party leaders and their histories of equivocation and deception the commitment would have to be utterly unequivocal to be of value. But even then, voters would be voting for many purposes in a system that is not designed closely to reflect public opinion on any one issue.
The basis of calls for a general election
So why do so many Labour Remainers want a general election instead of a referendum? It seems to be a mix of: Corbyn is for Remain really; Corbyn’s Brexit would be alright; Brexit is not as important as obtaining a Labour government. The first two are false. The last is a question of priorities – but it is not a Remain statement.
An Article 50 extension?
The 2017 snap election took just over 7 weeks. The process could have been compressed a bit further. An election called at the end of January 2019 would probably take place in March 2019, leaving a fortnight or so before Brexit day.
Would the EU agree an extension to the Article 50 deadline for more negotiations with a new government? They regard the Withdrawal Agreement as settled. The political declaration is just a starting point for negotiations – all its substance is to be settled after Brexit – so there is no point in rewording it.
It is hard to think the EU would seriously inconvenience themselves by messing up the European Parliament elections for the trivial changes that Corbyn wants. So that suggests an extension to Mid May at most.
Without a Parliament to approve treaty terms all that could result from negotiations would be clarificatory statements. Corbyn would presumably come back to London, hold a piece of paper in his hand bearing the signatures of the heads of the EU27 governments and say that he had saved Brexit so it could now go ahead. Peace in our time?
The EU would almost certainly extend the Article 50 period to allow for a referendum with a Remain option.
There is a good case for a general election once Brexit has been resolved. Either way, the next phase of British politics will be very different from the past three years. Both main parties will be exhausted and discredited. An election would give both the chance to refresh themselves with new personnel and ideas and offer the country a choice of direction.
However, there is no case for a pre-Brexit election if your aim is to Remain in the EU. For that, we need a referendum on the terms of Brexit with the option to Remain (People’s Vote).
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