Melanie McDonagh

The problem with a ‘People’s Vote’

The problem with a 'People's Vote'
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Surprise! The Economist has come out in favour of a new referendum on Brexit, joining Sadiq Khan, Tony Blair and possibly the entire cast of Strictly in calling for a People’s Vote. It observes sagely: “no one can claim to intuit what the people want. The only way to know is to ask them”. And of the PM’s peculiar tour of the nation to flog her plan (why?), it declares that it is an exercise in “pantomime” democracy:“May is right that MPs should take into account what the public think. So should she: not by guessing, but by calling on them to vote”.

But on what? What all the demands for a People’s Vote, including this one, have in common is absolute unclarity about what any new referendum should be about, though everyone, from Justine Greening down, are very clear that if people voted to remain in the EU they would respect their decision this time; oh yes. But I repeat: what’s the wording? What are the options on offer? All the People’s Vote proponents are very clear about is that Remain must be on the ballot, but about the nature of the alternative no one is clear at all. Are they seriously proposing that people should be asked to vote on the respective merits of: no deal, the PM’s deal, EEA membership, Canada plus plus, Norway with no free movement if the EU didn’t mind…or what? Or would the wording be better expressed as: Do you, knowing what you do now, want to Remain – tick yes (see the Irish referendums for the way in which the government always makes its preferred option the Yes one)? Or do you still want to leave…really? Honestly? Still? Tick no to the Remain question.

That’s what they really want, isn’t it: an actual re-run of the first referendum, only with the correct answer this time. And they might get it if the wording were correctly framed to favour them (the wording last time was actually very fair) and if enough people stayed away on the basis that their views don’t really matter. The Economist acknowledges that people who voted for Brexit in the last referendum might be a teeny bit disgruntled at being asked to do it again – there would, it intimates, be “lasting resentment”. Well, yes. I think that’s more likely than the possibility that Brexiteers would riot in the streets – and there’s not much chance they’ll be voting Ukip, the way that’s going. Whoever coined the term People’s Vote was a genius, but you know, the last one was a People’s Vote too. Note to the Economist: that’s what referendums are.