In the few days that have passed since Thursday’s vote, there has been some speculation as to whether the decision taken in the referendum can be reversed. Several possible routes have been suggested, but all of them look highly problematic to me.
Most MPs supported the Remain side; in theory, under the unwritten UK constitution, referendums can only ever be consultative, and the sovereign parliament in Westminster can, if it chooses, ignore them. However, theory isn’t the same as practice, and it would be a very brave bunch of parliamentarians who decided to ignore the wishes of the electorate after giving them the choice. And given that under the first-past-the-post electoral system, a party only needs to gain around 35% of the vote to gain an absolute majority of seats, if they were to try it, it’s entirely conceivable that the next parliament would contain a majority for leave. Even if large numbers of people do change their minds, I don’t see the level of support for Brexit dropping below around 35% any time soon, and I can easily conceive of them all voting for the same party in such circumstances. We have some experience to draw on here - it would mirror what happened in Scotland after the 2014 referendum.
Another mechanism suggested is a second referendum, with more than 3 million already having signed a petition calling for one. This particular petition was actually started before the referendum took place (in a touch of irony, by a member of the English Democrats who was concerned that the ‘leave’ side would be robbed of victory!), and tried to set a threshold for victory which was not, as it happens, achieved. But it’s difficult to see the justification for changing the rules after the event; and not liking the result isn’t really a good enough argument for demanding a replay. If it were, no election would ever be final!
One suggestion that has been made is that if we have another election in the autumn – which appears to be at least a possibility at present – then if all the parties stood on a platform of over-turning the result, or of holding a second referendum, then the situation could be reversed. The problem with that is that there is at least one party which would never agree to that; and that business about 35% being enough for a majority comes back into play. Majority UKIP government, anyone? Frying pans and fires are the words which come to mind.
There has been talk that the Scottish parliament could block exit for the UK by refusing to agree to the necessary Legislative Competence Motion. I suspect that would serve only to expose the reality that throughout the devolution process, Westminster has always retained the right to over-rule the devolved parliaments any time it so decides. That might give an extra push to Scottish independence aspirations, but EnglandandWales would still be out.
The Lib Dems have already said that they will fight the first post-Brexit election campaign on a platform of re-joining the EU. It’s a potential way forward, of course – but it’s inconceivable that the Tories would do the same, and highly unlikely for Labour either. The terms for re-entry would be unlikely to include all the little opt-outs for the UK, making it harder to get parties to support the proposal. And there’s still that little business of 35% leading to a majority…
It is, of course, possible that, after completing the negotiations with the other 27 members of the EU and establishing the detailed nature of the terms of the divorce, the government of the day would then decide to put those terms to another referendum in around 2 years’ time, if – and it’s a big if – there was clear evidence from polling that there had been a significant change of heart amongst the electorate. I can’t imagine the other 27 members looking kindly on a member state which caused them to waste huge amounts of time and effort over two years to arrive at a settlement and then said, “sorry, we’ve changed our minds”. They’d probably agree, but in their position, I’d be looking to get rid of at least some of the unique UK opt-outs which they’ve agreed to over the years.
That is, though, probably the best hope for those of us who would prefer to stay. But even then, the key is that question of having clear evidence of a significant change of heart amongst the electorate. And, in turn, the key to that is that those politicians who support remaining have to do a great deal more to sell the positives of European integration than they’ve done to date, something which looks very unlikely to me at present. Oh, and because of the 35% issue repeatedly mentioned above, it would also require voting reform as a pre-requisite, so that 35% couldn’t then elect a government which would take us out anyway.Overall, I’m pessimistic about any chance of reversing the decision taken. Out probably does mean out. And all this has come about because of one man’s inability to deal with an internal disagreement in his own party. Cameron has a lot to answer for.