Government spokespeople haven’t budged much, but take a closer look and it is impossible to ignore the growing sense of awareness that the only way out of the constitutional crisis Britain finds itself will be to hand the decision back to the people.
In light of the creeping realisation that a people’s vote is likely to be the only option left, commentators are turning to the important questions of how the referendum might actually work. Is there enough time? And what would the question on the ballot paper be?
Opponents of a people’s vote has claimed there simply isn’t enough time to have one before we are due to leave, on March 29th. So how long would it take? Five days ago, a government document was leaked which claimed a people’s vote would take an entire year. Now put aside for the moment that the government is now publicly considering this as an option – previously assumed to be the preserve of rational members in the cabinet such as David Lidington – and focus on the blatant lie in the text. Clearly, this leak was an intentional attempt to suggest a referendum would be undesirable on the grounds of time alone. But it proved an embarrassing failure.
The claim stands in direct opposition to the research done by UCL’s Constitutional Unit, which suggests a referendum could be completed in 22 weeks – a far cry from the exaggerated time-frame this ‘internal’ document suggests. The Unit predict it would take 11 weeks to pass the legislation, followed by 11 weeks of the regulated campaign period. The Liberal Democrats even reckon it could be done in 16 weeks which, while potentially a little ambitious, highlights the hugely overblown estimates of the government.
Currently we are due to leave on March 29, so we would need an extension of Article 50 to hold a referendum. This requires the agreement of all EU 27 members. Previously, European leaders have stated they’d be willing to grant an extension, but not if we’re just asking for more time to bicker amongst ourselves about what sort of cake-and-eat-it Brexit we prefer. They’d only be amenable, they say, if we were planning something far more conclusive, such as a referendum or a general election.
So yes, there is enough time. The main complication raised is the European Parliament elections this summer. The UK would most likely need to take part should an extension go beyond May 2019. European diplomats are reportedly a little concerned at the risk of Britain sending back ‘73 Nigel Farages’ to Brussels, an official told Bloomberg recently.
This is amusing but unlikely – Nigel’s idea for a new party is still little but a concept, anyway, and there is evidence abound to suggest the last two years have made our country more engaged, not less, in Europe’s democratic processes. In the grand scheme of our country, currently grappling with the biggest constitutional crisis of my lifetime, this surmountable problem should not prevent us from deciding what course of action we wish to take.
If we went ahead and decided we wanted a referendum, though, what would the question be? Is there any such thing as a ‘fair question’? In media interviews, any presenter seeking to trip you up will most likely throw this question to you with a coy smile. It has been wrongly presented by critics as the achilles heel of those pushing for a people’s vote. Though not particularly well publicised, there has in fact been a wealth of analysis done in the past months which addresses this very issue.
The question will be decided by Parliament. You can be forgiven for having reservations that our mighty representatives can reach a decision on a matter of national importance under a strict timetable. But reach one they must, and they will do so under the guidance of legal and constitutional experts – some of which have already been hard at work considering this very thing. The UCL Constitution Unit has already suggested that there are three possible options: a two-way choice between May’s Deal and Remain; between Remain and No Deal; or a three-way choice combining May’s Deal, No Deal, and Remain.
Now May’s deal died a very dramatic death in the Commons last week – and for good reason. Given few consider it a real player now it would be reasonable to argue another ‘deal’ or ‘type of Brexit’ might make it into the ballot paper. May’s deal + cosmetic and pointless add-ons to the backstop? Quite possibly. Or a Canada-style free trade deal? Common Market 2.0?
The problem with these alternative options is that we are in danger of repeating the same mistake of putting something undefined – and therefore malleable and easily manipulated – onto the ballot paper. ‘Leave’ in 2016 could mean all things to all people; you could have an independent trade policy while also enjoying the ‘exact same benefits’ of being members of the single market and customs union. This cannot happen again. Whatever proposals are on the ballot paper need to be held to real, relentless scrutiny. Their architects and supporters must be forced to clearly outline the workings of the plan and the consequences. And the media must hold them to account.
Where there is the will, there is the way. There are no insurmountable impediments to allowing the people to have their say on Brexit and to put an end to this disaster. The fact that the workings of a referendum are being vigorously considered is a welcome development. With the crisis continuing, other options are unlikely to resolve the impasse. A people’s vote will be the only one left – and we should be ready.