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The problem with a second referendum

My last postupset a few people who are campaigning to reverse Brexit, because I was so pessimistic about the chances of a second referendum before we leave in early 2019. They mistook my pessimism for defeatism. I would never suggest that those fighting for a second referendum, or an end to Brexit by any other means, should give up, just because the outlook looks bleak. You can never be certain about how things will turn out.

The path to a second referendum is clearly laid out by Andrew Adonis in this Remainiacs Podcast. Two things have to happen. First Corbyn needs to start arguing for a second referendum, which Adonis thinks he will do in the summer or autumn. I think this is conceivable, although far from certain. I would merely note that Remainers who declare that Corbyn will never do so because he is a Brexiter at heart are not only wrong, but are therefore by implication far more pessimistic about Brexit than I am, because this first stage is a necessary condition if a second referendum is going to happen.

The second thing that has to happen is that a majority of MPs write in the need to hold a second referendum as an amendment to the Brexit bill, a bill which thanksto rebel Conservative MPs is now a requirement. Yet there is a world of difference between demanding a proper bill before leaving, and demanding a second referendum. The Brexiters will ensure the government throws everything into preventing a second referendum, including perhaps its own survival. As I said in that earlier post, I cannot see it happening in the current environment, and this is the source of my short term pessimism.

One of the reasons I am so pessimistic is related to an earlier post, where I talked about how anti-democratic the concept of the transition period is. I could imagine at least some Conservative MPs arguing for a second referendum when the exact nature of the final deal is known. The first referendum was a decision to put an offer in for a new house: now the surveys and council searches are in we can take a final decision.

But, because of the transition period, what the final deal will be remains unclear, at least to most of the media and the public. The transition allows the Brexiters to continue to live in a fantasy land, where the final deal keeps all the advantages of being in the EU without any of the costs. I have argued, as have others, that the first stage agreement restricts the scope for what the final deal could look like, but this is denied by the government who are still busy eating cake. There is no reason for this to change in the next year, because the focus will be on the government’s futile attempts to avoid transition on EU terms. In this sense a second referendum will be just like the first: the realists will argue as hard as they can for reality, but reality will either not get a look in with the right wing press, or be balanced against fantasy by the broadcast media.

To threaten to bring down their government by voting for a second referendum, rebel Conservative MPs need a cast iron moral case. Alas because of transition they cannot argue that the second referendum will be a vote on the final deal, because the Brexiters can still claim the final deal will be all things to all men and women.

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