A confirmatory vote would snooker Brexit – Should we boycott such a ballot?

A confirmatory referendum offering a choice between the Remain-lite of a deal and Remain is no choice at all…

Prime Minister Theresa May’s pivot towards Labour means that, like it or not, the probability of another referendum on Brexit has increased in the last few days. How should Brexit supporters respond to such a vote?

Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage spoke for many last week at the Leave Means Leave rally in Westminster when he loudly declared that “if they force us to fight a second referendum, we will beat them by a bigger margin than last time”.

There is something appealing about the prospect of sticking-it-to-the-establishment-again, but what if we are not offered a straight rerun of 2016’s in/out ballot? What if we are confronted, instead, with a so-called confirmatory vote in which the question on the ballot paper will be a non-choice between what amounts to little more than Remain-lite and pure Remain?

The sole objective is to bury Brexit

Make no mistake about it. There is only one reason why our Remain-backing Parliament would want to shoe-horn a confirmatory referendum into whatever deal the Government cooks up with Labour, and that is to kill Brexit stone dead. You can be sure that there will be no option for no-deal on the ballot paper. Everything about the vote – the timing, the question, and the type of Brexit on offer – will be designed with the sole objective of burying Brexit.

Of course, we could just boycott the whole exercise. Farage has previously indicated that he would abstain if the the choice was between Theresa May’s deal and remaining in the European Union. And Brexiteer Tory MEP Daniel Hannan has advocated a boycott in the past on the grounds that a second referendum would be illegitimate given the failure to implement the result of the 2016 vote.

You could even imagine a campaign of electoral civil disobedience to protest against a rerun of an in/out referendum in which: no credible group of Leave-campaigners pitches to the Electoral Commission for the right to run the official campaign; all the big-name Brexiteers shun TV and radio studios and publicly refuse to take part in campaigning; and Brexit-backers run slick advertising aimed at getting people to boycott the ballot. If the result of all this were to be a hugely reduced turnout with a miniscule Leave vote, then a second in/out referendum might be robbed of all legitimacy.

But this approach might not work so well in a confirmatory vote. The legitimacy question would be less straightforward than a rerun of 2016’s in/out referendum. Supporters of a confirmatory vote argue that it offers the electorate a chance to vote on the actual Brexit deal that is available. There would be no “hard” Brexit choice on the ballot campaign, so there would be no option for a Farage-backed tell-them-again-only-louder campaign to support, and Brexit supporters would be split between those who would settle for anything called Brexit and those who would refuse to back such a compromise. And you can be sure that the vote would be billed as a once-and-for-all binding decision.

In short, Brexit supporters would be snookered by a confirmatory referendum – and that’s the whole point.

Back a bad deal or boycott the ballot?

We could all just swallow hard and back the deal as the best Brexit that is on offer and campaign to persuade Leave supporters to vote for it, but there is a large part of the Leave constituency in this country that would just not buy into this. So, the likelihood is that Remain would win.

One option might be to encourage people who back the idea of a “hard” Brexit to spoil their ballot papers by scrawling “NO DEAL” across them. Such a campaign would be difficult to organise and risky too, since it is not clear the extent to which a no-deal Brexit is supported by the wider population of Leave voters. It would not depress turnout as much as a campaign for a boycott – and, anyway, Remain would probably win.

A straight-forward boycott might be easier and simpler to organise, and it would have a better chance of undermining the legitimacy of a confirmatory referendum by reducing the turnout, especially if it were backed by serious advertising and supported by leading Brexiteers including the likes of Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson. A confirmatory referendum that was boycotted by a significant proportion of the electorate – and the vast majority of Leave supporters – would send a powerful message to the establishment and squash any sense that the issue had been democratically settled. But we would need to be clear that it would result in a defeat of the Government’s proposal, a win for Remain, and the revocation of Article 50.

One point to consider is that it is just possible that a campaign to boycott any confirmatory referendum would not fall foul of referendum spending limits. The relevant law as set out in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 limits spending by “permitted” participants which includes individuals or bodies that have registered with the Electoral Commission by giving “notification of the outcome or outcomes for which the giver of the notification proposes to campaign”- where “outcome” is defined as “a particular outcome in relation to any question asked in the referendum”. Campaigning for a boycott is not the same as campaigning for a particular outcome in relation to a ballot question and is, at least arguably, excluded from referendum spending controls. Although you can be sure that such an interpretation would be challenged in the courts if a boycott campaign gained traction and that it might even be headed-off in the legislation that enabled the confirmatory vote.

Unity is needed

So, should we be planning a campaign of electoral civil disobedience aimed at securing a massive boycott of a confirmatory referendum? Or should we campaign for what is the best Brexit that is on offer even though it will be seen by many as a Remain-lite sell-out?

A boycott may be the better option if Brexit supporters can be united behind such a strategy. One thing is certain, we cannot afford to be divided on the issue. The worst-case scenario would be for Remain to win in a confirmatory vote that had a high turnout.

Clearly, leading Brexiteers need to war game the options and agree a unified strategy. Now.

 

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References

Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2000/41/pdfs/ukpga_20000041_en.pdf

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