As regular readers may know, we’ve discounted the idea of a second Brexit referendum. Until very recently, it was close to a third-rail idea among the political classes. The People Had Spoken. A second referendum had the air of the sort of dirty trick that those anti-democratic EU members did when they got referendum results they didn’t like.
The second referendum notion is now safe for mention, no doubt in part because there is no way, given the time involved for all steps in conducting a referendum (including the not-trivial process of agreeing on the wording of the question) for the entire process to take less than a year, when we now have less than ten months to B-Day.
However, as Richard North has taken to pointing out on almost a daily basis, a crash-out Brexit is virtually assured. The UK has no realistic solution to the Irish border problem. Perhaps May will capitulate and accept a sea border (and the de-facto partial integration of Northern Ireland into the EU) but the odds don’t appear to favor that.
To make matters worse, UK businesses have stayed mum about the consequences of a hard Brexit (as in one with a transition period) and a crash out, since they bizarrely regard a Labour government as an even worse threat to their bottom lines and social standing. That has resulted in the Government getting no pressure, not even any meaningful feedback, regarding their failure to do any Brexit preparation whatsoever.
And the level of infighting has made this insanely bad situation worse. As the Guardian reported over the weekend:
A damaging culture of “extraordinary secrecy” inside government is blighting its ability to plan for Brexit, according to a comprehensive study of Whitehall.
Officials are being forced to look at key documents in special reading rooms, while some papers are confined to the offices of the most senior civil servants. The installation of a network of secured computers that can only be accessed by officials with very high security clearance is also being accelerated, to keep the documents under wraps.
Meanwhile, the number of documents being restricted is going “well beyond” those containing sensitive details of the government’s EU negotiations. Even basic planning and guidance documents are kept locked away, largely inaccessible to civil service teams that need to see them.
A security clearance backlog has also meant that some officials have waited up to nine months to gain access to the material they need….
It rejects the government’s claim that the secrecy is needed to protect its negotiating position with the EU. Instead, it concludes that secrecy is being fuelled by cabinet splits over the direction of Brexit and the need to avoid “domestic political embarrassment”. It concludes that the drive to restrict information has made effective co-ordination of Brexit work across government “impossible”.
The story mentions in passing that the Government has created over 10,000 new civil service positions to help handle Brexit. That less than 1/10th of what would probably be need to forestall worst outcomes
In the meantime, Whitehall and Parliament are in an arm wrestle over the amendments that the House of Lords attached to the Withdrawal bill that the Government very much wants Commons to remove.
But this is all a sideshow. Despite May’s and Davis’ claims to the contrary, these amendments have no implications for the UK’s negotiations. Most of them involve what the EU would regard as UK internal matters; the ones that involve the UK fantasy that some sort of customs union deal will result in frictionless trade won’t survive a sanity check with Barnier if they even got that far.
So let us assume North is right and the UK is on track for a crash-out. That will become undeniable to the press, pols, and public sometime between the June EU Council meeting (when the EU may tell the UK its at the end of its road as far as Irish border dithering is concerned) or at the very latest October, when the EU said the exit agreement needed to be completed so it could be reviewed and hopefully ratified by member governments.
So what happens in the UK then? You’d expect rational people to go into overdrive in making preparations. But rationality has been sorely absent throughout this entire process.
I would not be surprised to see a last ditch effort to have a second referendum, with the excuse being that a crash out is such a momentous event that the public must be given the opportunity to approve it. Or to put it more accurately, the UK’s feckless leadership desperately needed to shift blame to anyone it can find.
How might this scenario play out? Let’s say in September, when it becomes undeniable that there will be no deal, a hue and cry arises for another referendum so that the public can be given the chance to undo its uninformed decision.
But at that point, it would be impossible to complete the process before B-Day. Remember that the EU has come pretty close to saying that it would let the UK back out of Brexit up to the very last minute…but deadlines are deadlines.
So the next play (mind you, I am not sure this could happen quickly enough from an administrative standpoint, but bear with me…), would be that the Government (after a Parliamentary vote? procedural experts please weigh in) would go begging to the EU to push back the Brexit date to allow the UK to have a second referendum.
I can’t see the EU agreeing to that. For starters, the EU has no assurance that the UK citizens would vote to reverse Brexit. Second, the EU has no reason to cut the UK any breaks, particularly with Italy getting stroppy.
But it would make for a great final spectacle to allow the UK to paint itself as victim for its leaders failing to take responsibility for events it set in motion. So I see something vaguely along these lines as more probable than it would be by any common sense standard.