Normally anything one says in the House of Commons is a
pretty well-kept secret. Last week however, a remark of mine got into the
public domain and has prompted some outraged email correspondence.
In response to repeated demands from the Opposition benches for a second referendum in order to reunite the nation, I observed that anyone who thinks that another referendum will bring the nation back together must have been on another planet during the last one.
Overwhelmingly, the expressed preference of my
correspondents is for us just to leave the EU without further agreement, and the
sooner the better.
Nevertheless, even if some way behind, the second most popular view expressed to me is that there should indeed be a second referendum to settle the matter.
I have always taken the view that the terms on which the last referendum was offered was that it was to be a ‘once in a generation’ opportunity to settle the question of EU membership.
To return to the same question in another referendum before we’ve even implemented the decision of the last one, would fundamentally undermine any residual faith in democracy.
If it were clear however, that the British people repented of their decision to leave the EU, even before we’ve left, then any democrat must accept that voters have a right to change their minds.
Ours is not a democracy that offers one person one vote -but only once! (much in the manner as did so many of our newly independent former colonies which ended up with ‘presidents for life’).
My own estimate however, is that opinion remains as divided as it was when we held our referendum in 2016 and therefore, the case for repeating it remains unconvincing.
A principal demand from opposition MPs is that, if the Government’s EU withdrawal agreement were to be passed by Parliament, then the negotiations with the EU which will then commence to define the terms of our future trading relation with the EU, should themselves be followed by a ‘confirmatory referendum’ on the question of whether to implement the newly negotiated trading relationship, or just to stay in the EU after all.
Apart from the fact that this would just be exasperating. It
isn’t what we agreed to: we never suggested in the original Referendum Act,
that we would have two referendums, one to decide in principle to leave, and
then a second when the terms of a future relationship with the EU had been
finalised. And the reason that we never decided to go about it that way should be
The starting point is that the EU doesn’t want us to leave. (We are the second largest net financial contributor).
If we present the EU with the finality of a decision to leave, then it is in their interests to negotiate a future relationship in our mutual best interests.
If however, the question of our leaving remains an open one whilst we negotiate the future relationship, then the EU strategy must be to get us to change our mind by making the future relationship as undesirable as possible.
A confirmatory referendum completely undermines our negotiating position for the future relationship; in just the same way as taking no-deal off the table undermined our negotiating position for the withdrawal agreement.