Sequence matters

Opting to hold a general election, just to avoid another Brexit referendum has always been irresponsible, lazy and self-serving. Originally, leaving was merely about whether voters wanted Brexit for Brexit’s sake. It was never discussed whether they wanted Brexit, only if it was a Tory Brexit or only if it was a Corbyn-Labour Brexit (this is just one of the reasons that voters cannot claim to know what they were voting for). A general election should be to express a preference for a left- or right-wing direction and style of Brexit/no Brexit, not whether Brexit should still happen.

Although there is no discernible majority for any form of Brexit, the polarisation is, tangibly, between staying in, with the jammiest deal in the world, or leaving hard/clean/WTO stupid-style – pick your own term, everyone else is. As irresponsible and catastrophic as leaving stupid-style would be and, as much as it is opposed, it is clear, i) that the Tories are hard for stupid-style and ii) that nothing of compromise is politically possible, beneficial, sustainable or even palatable. Impasse means impasse.

It is democratic cowardice that politicians are afraid to check the relevant view of better-informed voters, whose will they used to claim to champion. Unfortunately, just as both Labour and the Conservatives begin to get jittery about holding a general election, since their dreadful Local and EU polling results, the government – if we can still call it that – has brought the horrible possibility closer. Everyone knows that if it happens, it will be because chaos, panic and convention caused it and everyone knows, too, that it is more likely to deepen and widen the chaos and panic than to fix anything. Remedy requires integrity in its sequencing. A referendum and then a general election is the democratic order for what should be happening.

A referendum to confirm or withdraw consent for Brexit should be called. While the conservative party installs another barely-elected Prime Minister with an arrogant, democracy-snubbing fiasco of a leadership contest, Parliament and the Electoral Commission can sort out the date, the question and the paperwork for the referendum. This will be easier and quicker than claimed, especially if it is the same question but, anyway, the EU would have to allow the time, out of respect for our constitutional arrangements. It will also give Labour time to decide what outcome it wants and who it actually represents. Even better, should they use the time to consider also changing their leader.

Naturally, most Leavers do not want a referendum: their visions will not stand the testing and they are already looking more like the minority view. And, of course, many MPs do not want one, either, because they would have to engage with details and discussions that they have taken great pains to overlook. However, not only does Remain have the best chance of winning but Leavers may well soon find that a referendum is also their best and only shot of saving Brexit, at all.

Once we have had the referendum, there can be a brief administrative resetting and a reflective pause and then, a general election should be called so that the electorate can decide which flavour of government they would prefer, either to oversee leaving or to oversee staying in the EU, according to the referendum result.

For three years, we have been told what we think and what we want. For three years we have been told who and what we would vote for. For three years, politicians have been wishing, guessing, manipulating and extrapolating wildly. It really is time they were brave and sensible and asked us directly and specifically. And soon.

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