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What would it take for a decision on Brexit to be made?

Part of me is surprised that it took until now for me to get overtaken by events.

A monastery, recently

Yesterday morning I was recording a podcast outside the monastery where the Treaty of Lisbon was signed in 2007, but by the time I could get to sufficiently useful wifi, Parliament had moved on enough for there to be no point in uploading.

With that in mind, I want to side-step the multiple goings-on in Westminster by considering a bigger question that looms over all of this: how do we get to a decision on Brexit?

Recall that there are only three options: leave with a deal; leave without a deal, or; don’t leave.

That’s it: even to talk about extensions is just to postpone picking one of these three.

That matters because the talk of Parliament ‘taking no-deal off the table’ is nonsense: it’s merely pushing to one side for a while.

Yes, we know that this Parliament can mobilise to insist the government goes to ask for extensions to Article 50, but it can only be confident of doing that until there’s a general election (which doesn’t have to be until 2022), and it can’t be sure that the EU will accept any request.

So we come back to the choice between the three options.

General election, you say?

Two problems with that one immediately come to mind.

Firstly, it’s not clear what platform all the parties will stand on. The Brexit Party and the Lib Dems might have made their decision, but others less so.

We might assume that Johnson has backed himself into a “leave on 31 October, whatever” position that effectively means no-deal, but if Parliament manoeuvers him into holding a vote after that date (as seems quite possible), then what?

Likewise, the Labour is still to clarify what their policy would be should they hold power, with MPs holding preferences almost as diverse as the Tories.

And this leads to the second issue, namely that it’s not clear how people would vote in a general election.

The Tories might be ahead, but not so much that a single-party majority is guaranteed. With Labour, Lib Dems and Brexit Party all credibly within the mix, plus an SNP likely to sweep Scotland, even my psephological colleagues are unwilling to forecast anything beyond their own uncertainty.

For that reason, a hung Parliament looks as likely as anything else here, which opens a door to coalition talks and the compromises that brings. Even if most people vote for a particular choice on Brexit – and remember that two years ago they very much plumped for parties without clear positions – then they might not get that choice being followed through.

So a referendum then?

A referendum would be the logical next step in this. Side-step a blocked Parliament, put it back to the people and go from there.

I’ve written a thread about this before:

The problems are multiple: getting a referendum on the books at all, then choosing a question that’s fair (and seen to be fair) and decisive; then getting to a result that isn’t immediate contested by the losing sides.

Keep in mind that our current situation stems from a mix of a poorly-framed process (no pre-determined plans for each eventuality; no clarity on mandate to Parliament, etc.) and a deep unwillingness by a substantial section of society to accept the result of the previous referendum.

Why, one might ask, would things be different this time around, given all that’s happened since then?

The risk is that we simply end up back where we were in the summer of 2016: shocked and uncertain how to proceed.

So, what then?

If I were feeling optimistic, then I’d say it’s possible to design a second referendum to avoid these problems. But then I look at the state of things now and wonder whether it’s really conceivable that a new government could manage to get past all these problems in a way that generates sufficient confidence in the process to make the outcome acceptable.

And this has been the real casualty in all this: the system as a whole.

I’ve written elsewhere today about this, but the argument there is much the same: by focusing on the outcome, we neglect the process, which will have deep political and social consequences for the UK for a very long time.

If we don’t address that, then we really won’t be able to get to a Brexit decision.


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