Out of Brexit Chaos part 1: People’s Vote


The Brexit process began as an internal Tory party squabble, but its resolution has to move from there to mature thinking about the future.

This means asking the rest of the EU for a significant extension to the Article 50 period. This is not for significant further negotiation — if Brexit has to happen, May’s deal is pretty good — but to enable things to be done with considered thinking about the future.

I suggest that the process needs a People’s Vote, but on a longer timetable than people are proposing to allow adequate preparation. It requires a Government of National Unity to provide stability for this to happen, and for enough time afterward for political parties to draw up manifestos in the light of the result, on which to have a General Election.

I’ll pick up the idea of a Government of National Unity a the second article (published tomorrow).

People’s Vote

Downing St recently drew criticism for suggesting that it could take a year to organise a People’s Vote. In the present state of anxiety, it is tempting to accelerate the process, but my plea is for it to be given more time because it is more than just enabling people to put crosses on ballot papers. Several things lie behind this:

Preserving democracy

Referenda risk undermining representative democracy. Unless the question is very specific, they carry a sense that those elected can’t be trusted. Proceeding too quickly now risks compounding this it can be spun as “MPs couldn’t fix this, so the people had to”, and inviting an “anti-politics vote”.

European Parliament elections

If the article 50 period is extended by more than a very short time, then we are likely to be taking part in elections to the European Parliament. At its best this dispatches the myth of the EU is undemocratic and gives a chance to talk about what the Parliament does. However, it risks voter fatigue if that is followed too quickly by a People’s Vote.

Listening away from London

Gordon Brown has suggested a listening process at a regional level across the UK. Things look different in the different regions of England, in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Preparations for a referendum can’t have the stamp of “remote Westminster”. A regional debate is needed before the question to go on the ballot paper is formulated.

Address rule-breaking

The Electoral Commission has fined the Leave campaigns for their behavior in 2016 and referred the matter to the police for criminal investigation. That’s led to suggestions of caution on the part of the Police because this is politically sensitive. We need time for this legal process to conclude so that the lessons from it inform changes in the regulations for the People’s Vote — with enough transparency to mean people see this as about fairness to both sides. As it’s hard to set aside a referendum even if the rules were broken, we need a way to catch rule-breakings as they happen.

Outside interference

There were concerns over interference from outside the UK — mainly from Russia — in the social media campaigning in 2016. This is a tougher nut to crack, but we need to do something to address this, so there’s not a sense that the result is “the will of Putin”.

Clarity about the question

The question needs to be unambiguous. Some have suggested a three-way question, such as ranking “Remain”, “May’s deal” and “No deal”. But Gina Miller, in her blog and on Twitter, has provided evidence of people thinking “No deal” means to carry on as we are (i.e. Remain), as there was evidence in 2016 of people voting “Leave” to keep things as they are (or were), without registering that this would mean a big change.

Responsible question

We mustn’t repeat the mistake of having a question where one option was well defined (Remain), and the other wasn’t (Leave). For the People’s Vote, there needs to have been adequate thinking about both options, which means the Leave option has to be something the EU is likely to accept (probably means close to May’s deal). There will need to be time for proper impact assessments of both options, whose results are made public.

It’s also essential that both options are viable, so the Brexit option is something the EU is likely to accept. With suggestions that Boris Johnson is using the “Donald Trump playbook”, Parliament would be grossly irresponsible to put an option on the ballot that would do profound harm — such as crashing out without a deal.

* Mark Argent was the Liberal Democrat candidate in Huntingdon Constituency in 2019 and blogs at markargent.com/blog.

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  • Hate to break it to you Mark but if Brexit has shown anything it is that the UK poltical system is broken and is staffed by at best third rate people. So worrying that peoples faith in our system will weaken is a bit like worrying the stable door is open, after the horse left years ago, had a good life in the paddock and died.

  • Graham Jeffs 23rd Jan '19 - 8:59am

    Phil Winwood – what absolute rubbish! By extension we never need to have another General Election because the “people” made a decision last time! This continual carp that politicians cannot be trusted is insidious – obviously they have a variety of different views – the electorate’s wishes as to who should represent them in government changes, so why shouldn’t any change in the electorate’s views on Brexit be tested?

    Of course, the country should never have been forced into having a referendum in the first place – but that is a different story and was mostly to do with the Conservative Party.

  • Phil Winwood
    The last YouGov poll last week, on the EU, they have been doing these monthly for 18 months, said Remain 59 against an actual leave option 41%. 56% to Remain 44% to Leave on a general basis and 56 -44 in favour of a Referendum. It was widely reported on Sky News last Thursday, of course ignored by the BBC. The Sky poll on voters in Leeds on the TV at the weekend did say tight. However it will be recalled that YOUGOV went very, very close with the last General Election result with their massive consituency result 2 days before the election, and contrary to other polling, it was then treated with some scepticism but was almost bang on.
    It was only 3 -4 months ago that support for a Refgerendum was in the 20’s now at at a minimum it is between 45 and 56. If Article 50 is delayed another 3-6 months, who knows what the figure may be!

  • Phil Winwood
    Famously, of course, Farage said just before the result came though, that a 52 – 48 Remain result “would leave unfinished business”, and saying he would then continue the fight!

    I don’t understand this “politicians cannot be trusted” argument anyway. Politicians are not some species apart from normal people! What distinguishes them? Who is a politician and who is not? My understanding is that they are people elected to make decisions on behalf of the population at large in a representative democracy, ie ALL those. However, what about all those in single issue and other campaigns, and those who assist in whatever way those trying to be elected? When I am canvassing people locally, as a candidate or sitting councillor, I often ask this question, and people often want to say I am not a politician!

    It seems to me the distinction is between politicians people like and those they don’t!

  • Richard Underhill 23rd Jan '19 - 10:06am

    Phil Winwood 23rd Jan ’19:
    There is nothing more democratic than another election.
    It happens every time there is a zugzwang in Parliament,
    although the Fixed Term Parliament Act did not prevent the 2017 election.
    On BBC Radio 4 Today Programme, today, former defence Minister Liam Fox was arguing that Parliament should not initiate legislation because it would be marking its own homework. Surely he knows that the government initiates legislation and then uses its payroll vote to mark its own homework.
    Although he is usually polite, he can still be illogical.

  • John Marriott 23rd Jan '19 - 10:08am

    @Mark Argent
    Here’s a spanner in the works. What IF, by a process of elimination, and with a postponement/extension/delay of Article 50, Parliament comes up with a ‘Deal’ that gets majority of MP support on a free cross party vote (as Heath did when we first joined joined the EEC) and approval by the EU? Don’t rule it out completely.

    If we do have to have another Referendum, just the british public the benefit of the doubt when it comes to common sense. We need a far more sophisticated and nuanced approach this time. Why not, as I have suggested earlier, have THREE options, ranked in order of preference, namely Leave the EU with no Deal / Leave the EU with a Deal / Remain in the EU?

    As for a ‘Government of National Unity’ the last two words could be argued to constitute an oxymoron as far as our country is concerned at the moment. And what about a possible General Election? Perhaps you might be considering that in Part Two of your treatise.

  • Geoffrey Payne 23rd Jan '19 - 10:38am

    Unfortunately there are no grounds for optimism at all. It is well worth reading the Spinning Hugo blog; https://spinninghugo.wordpress.com

    I am hoping the Peoples Vote campaign know something we do not because No Deal looks like the most likely outcome.

  • Preserving democracy…………..and inviting an “anti-politics vote”……….

    Mark, I can’t see how things could get any more “anti-politics” than they are now. “A pox on all your houses” would seem to be a mild rebuke judging from the language I’ve heard about parliament’s handling of the issue..

  • “Politicians cannot be trusted I do not remember one saying if leave won the result would not be respected.”

    I remember Nigel Farage saying that if Remain won by a narrow margin there may be unstoppable demand for a second referendum. I also recall Boris Johnson arguing that a vote to leave could be used as grounds to negotiate a better deal with the EU (i.e. better than the deal that wasn’t a deal Cameron got, not the farce that is May’s deal) and then have a second referendum to remain in. And of course there was the hilarious petition set up by a Brexit supporter prior to the vote, setting out why a narrow defeat shouldn’t close the issue – that was then adopted to their disgust by Remainers after the event.

    I sympathise with those taking the view that it was bad enough having the divisiveness of one referendum, and I could easily see a second referendum creating more problems that it solves. I think this is a problem for parliament to solve not another referendum. However, I think it’s disingenuous to suggest that had remain won by a similar margin leave campaigners would magnanimously accept it, and wouldn’t be campaigning for their own second referendum.

  • @Tim Dumper -I agree with your point about ‘politicians being ordinary people as well’ (to paraphrase) and that all too often whether or not a politician is ‘liked’ depends purely on whether they agree with a particular voters point of view. Just as we saw Stephen Lloyd vigorously condemned here on LDV by some of the very people who so heartily praise ‘principled rebels’ in other Parties.
    @expats and others who talk of/agree with the contempt of ‘the public’ for ‘politicians’ -lets just step back a minute. Our MP’s are massively divided as to what they think is the best option between Leaving with No Deal at one end and Remaining at the other, with all nuances inbetween. But so of course are the ‘great public’.

    For example some who voted Leave want Leave, two and a half years ago, no negotiation, no deal, just Leave, immediately. Whilst others want various degrees of Leave -just like the despised politicians in fact. Of those who voted Remain, some want Remain as we were, much like Nick Clegg’s disastrous answer to Farage in the 2014 TV debate during the EU elections when we lost 13 out of 14 of our MEP’s. Others (like some vociferous commentators on LD Voice) want Remain but with far greater integration that merely starts with joining Schengen and the Euro. Others (including some commentators on LD Voice) want Remain but with reforms that would move the EU back more towards the original, pre Maastricht, EEC.

    If our elected politicians are divided and unclear on ‘The Answer’ so are the voters of the UK. So for voters to condemn politicians is very much a case of ‘Pot and Kettle in this case. Worse still, as in The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, many are puzzled by the answer they got because they didn’t clearly work out the question first.

  • John Marriott 23rd Jan '19 - 1:27pm

    @Paul Holmes
    As usual, a response that is the epitome of common sense. By the way, if that “disastrous response” to which you refer was, I seem to recall, in answer to a question from a young lady in the audience. That’s why I’m not a massive fan of the EU as it is today and why I reckon that many Lib Dems just don’t get it and why I cannot get excited about a ‘People’s Vote’.

  • Paul Barker 23rd Jan '19 - 1:48pm

    We may have a bit more idea what’s happening after the 29th but I don’t expect anything to be settled till The Markets intervene with a proper Shares/Currency crash. MPs are frightened of their Parties & its going to take a bigger fear to shift them.

  • The leave vote in my ward was the same as the 66% quoted by Ian Shires in his sad account of councillor losses (well, 66.6%). We had no District elections in the May after the referendum but in May 2018 I was re-elected with a slightly increased majority. There were actually some people who had admitted on the doorstep that they disagreed with us on the EU but they were minded to vote for me anyway. This may be an example of the civilised disagreement that is in short supply across vast tracts of England.
    We are a Labour facing area and that is probably a key difference from Ian’s area. UKIP have never elected anyone in our part of Bradford. A few years ago, well before the referendum, they took four seats from Labour in other parts of Bradford District, eventually losing them, and they appear to be a spent force now – some even defecting to the Yorkshire Party without changing their views!
    I actually believe that if you have been successful at holding seats over a sustained period you can take some small steps towards the creation of a Liberal society. Doing what we do as we work with people (not merely for them), explaining why we say and do what we say and do, we can change the feel, the atmosphere, of a local patch of earth.
    It’s only part of the story, but an important part of the mix as we try to pick up the debris in the hard slog that lies ahead.

  • Peter Martin 23rd Jan '19 - 6:40pm

    Matthew Green came up with an interesting suggestion on his blog which I haven’t seen anywhere else.

    “Once the UK crashes out, the Remainers are defeated, as there is no easy way back in. That means that the government can try rallying these towards reinventing the deal …..”

    I must say this option hadn’t occurred to me. Nor has it to many others! Would this be legally possible? To leave for a short time but then effectively sign up to the ‘hated deal’?


    Maybe it’s time to think about an “unholy alliance” of Remainers and Leavers to agree to decide the issue, one way or another, and have that referendum sooner rather than later?

  • John Marriott 23rd Jan '19 - 6:58pm

    As someone who a) would still vote Remain in another referendum as a first option and b) has got used to being in a minority on most issues for most of his life, I would urge all you ‘People’s Vote’ enthusiasts, who probably reckon that, this time, a Remain victory is a certainty and, indeed, might just revitalise Lib Dem fortunes, not to put all your eggs in one basket.

    As I have said on several threads, we MUST exhaust all other possibilities before we even consider asking the public to vote again, either in a another Referendum or, God forbid, another General Election.

    On a slightly different issue, let me say that I agree wholeheartedly with Layla Moran MP in her comments about Sir James Dyson. He joins an increasing list of Brexiteers worthies that includes John Redwood, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Lord Nigel Lawson, who lecture us about patriotism and putting our faiths in Great Britain plc; but are quite prepared to move their business or advise clients so to do and, in the case of Lord Lawson, their residence, away from these shores.

  • Nonconformistradical 23rd Jan '19 - 7:01pm

    “On a slightly different issue, let me say that I agree wholeheartedly with Layla Moran MP in her comments about Sir James Dyson. He joins an increasing list of Brexiteers worthies that includes John Redwood, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Lord Nigel Lawson, who lecture us about patriotism and putting our faiths in Great Britain plc; but are quite prepared to move their business or advise clients so to do and, in the case of Lord Lawson, their residence, away from these shores.”

    Seconded wholeheartedly

  • John Marriott 23rd Jan '19 - 7:38pm

    Glad you agree with me. While I’m apparently on a roll, so to speak, what do folks think about reports that our MP for the 18th Century (aka Jacob Rees-Mogg) suggesting that May should consider suspending Parliament to stop next week’s amendments? Hypocrisy doesn’t do it justice, does it?

  • Just to respond to those who say there is no evidence that voters have changed their minds since June 2016. http://britainelects.com/polling/europe/
    And please lets not let them get away with saying that. It is patently, demonstrably untrue.

  • @John Marriott & David Raw
    On the subject of “taking back control”, did you notice the even more brazen hypocrisy demonstrated by Tory MP Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) who wrote earlier this week to ask the Polish Government (although they rejected his plea) to veto any potential future application by the U.K. to extend Article 50? So much for Tory Brexiterers defending the rights of the sovereign British Parliament to exercise control over our country’s future!

  • Not sure what happened to my comment posted about 10 minutes ago? Was it deleted in error?

  • Ignore my last comment/query @ 8.57pm!

  • Joseph Bourke 23rd Jan '19 - 10:03pm

    David Raw,

    Former Brexit minister receives £3,000 an hour for consultancy role with digger-maker JCB”.

    JCB driver is a good job, but I don’t think you will find too many employers like Antony Bamford that would be willing to pay £3k per hour. I don’t think JCB has ever got over being fined £35m by the EU for anti-trust breaches.

  • We already had a “people’s vote”, and the people voted to leave. You might not like it, but we can’t keep rerunning every vote just because some people don’t like the result. Should we re-run the General Election in every seat the Lib Dems won at the last election? Perhaps we should, just to check that people “knew what they were voting for”.

    As a Liberal Brexiteer, I despair at what the party is doing on Brexit.

  • @Peter Martin – re: Matthew Green
    His point is interesting, however, if the UK does crash out, don’t expect the EU to leave the pre-Brexit deal (ie. May’s ‘hated deal’) on the table; expect it to disappear just like the agreements David Cameron achieved.

    Once the UK crashes out, it will have zero sway over the EU – who will be preoccupied with damage limitation within the EU27, so we can expect any deal – trade or otherwise will most certainly not be in the UK’s best interests.

    One thing however, we can be certain about, the Brexiteers will be too busy blaming the EU to be able to do anything constructive, and so will continue to do as they are currently doing and be obstructive to any attempts to mitigate the situation including the signing of any deal with the EU…

  • Christopher Haigh 24th Jan '19 - 12:03am

    There basically three types of breciteers within the Tory party – one of them divided into two sub groups. There are the Little Englanders ( Mrs May probably represents them a bit ) , there are economic liberal globilisers (a) who are socially conservative (represented by Rees Moggs etc) (b) socially liberal globilisers who are (possibly exceptional self interested businessmen like James Dyson ). Then there is also a n others such as political opportunists like Johnson and other indescribables like Davis and Fox.None of them really have anything in common.

  • Joseph Bourke 24th Jan '19 - 1:36am

    As the prospect of a Brexit election subsides in the face of projections of another hung parliament and the Labour leadership procrastinate on getting behind a referendun; a tweaked version of Mrs May deal still seems may resurrect itself as the most likely compromise outcome. According to Bloomberg, it may also be the only one that can command a grudging public acceptance (in the absence of a referendum) https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2019-01-23/brexit-what-u-k-voters-really-think-about-theresa-may-s-deal. Difficult days ahead.

  • It is worth pointing out ( not for the first time and certainly not for the last) that because Brexit is so vague each Brexiteer could project onto Brexit their own private fantasy. Now they tend to be mutually exclusive, but having taken the great leap of faith, what they wanted becomes secondary to achieving some sort of Brexit because without it their whole self worth is gone. Hence why they will wriggle and turn muttering ever more contradictory statements in a desperate attempt to give their desire to achieve a word “Brexit”. I fear they think if Brexit occurs everything will be great, because like a football match it will be over and we can all get together have a drink and discuss the result. Well it won’t be because this is just the first round of talks, the rest will go on for years and the results will continue to roll in. I suspect as time goes by their default response like Basil will be “Don’t mention the Brexit”. The fate of Brexiteers is to become the “Know nothing” section of UK society and like their predecessors in the USA history will not treat them kindly

  • Michael 23rd Jan ’19 – 10:47pm………………..We already had a “people’s vote”, and the people voted to leave. You might not like it, but we can’t keep rerunning every vote just because some people don’t like the result. Should we re-run the General Election in every seat the Lib Dems won at the last election? Perhaps we should, just to check that people “knew what they were voting for”…………..

    As Martin says, the 2015 election was re-run for political advantage (despite the 5 year ‘promise’ to prevent such action): it’s called politics.
    The idea that any, vote, referendum, decision, etc. is sacrosanct is naive in the extreme. Democracy is all about change. Had the vote gone the other way Brexit’s high priest would’ve (Did) call for a re-run…”Sauce for both goose and gander” perhaps.

  • Arnold Kiel 24th Jan '19 - 9:37am

    A people’s vote has one tactical disadvantage: it is based on extending, and then perpetuating membership, and therefore available only until March 29. May’s deal is available also after that. In case of a crash-out, UK-EU negotiations will finally happen with the required intensity and realism. The EU’s entry conditions (the then equivalent of today’s 39 billion, rather 50, reciprocal citizens’ rights, and a NI-backstop) will quickly be met after the disappearance of a remain-option by a UK Parliament faced with an implosion of economic activity and public order. The only problem would be the retroactive adoption of a transition-period which would then require 28 approvals, but that would clearly be in everybody’s interest. Therefore, May can risk no-deal, remainers not.

  • Brexiteers can be listed into so many variants that it shows why it is an impossible policy.

    Amongst Labour there is a nationalist left Brexit – essentially Red UKIP with nationalisation and re-industrialisation of the country – think Kate Hoey. There is also a slightly more internationalist flavour of that which is pretty much Corbyn’s Brexit. Then we have something similar to May’s deal but with more worker’s protections – e.g. the positions taken by Flint and Mann. Add to this we get the Nordic style Brexit which some on the left see as a compromise.

    On the Tory side we have the axis of Bannon, the global free traders, the Empire Loyalists and the Middle England xenophobes.

    Then at the real extremes there is no doubt a white nationalist Brexit. And a full on Stalinist variant.

    And then we get into the various permutations of Norway / Switzerland and so on. It’s insane.

  • If parliament can and does take a no deal off the table then the choice is between a deal and revoking Article 50. Once parliament has agreed a deal and it has been accepted by the eu, then a confirmatory referendum should be held. The default position must be remaining in the eu, not a no deal Brexit.

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