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 suggesting to allow adequate preparation. It needs a Government of National Unity to provide the stability for this to happen, and for enough time afterwards 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 second article.
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 simply enabling people to put crosses on ballot papers. Several things lie behind this:
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 being undemocratic and gives a chance to talk about what the Parliament actually does. But 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 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”. Regional debate is needed before the question to go on the ballot paper is formulated.
The Electoral Commission has fined the Leave campaigns for their behaviour 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.
There were concerns over interference from outside the UK — particularly 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 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.
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 are 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 are 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.