06 December 2018
No Deal: A Dead Duck?
Mrs May’s Plan B.
By John Watson
“Leave or Remain?”, “Deal or No Deal?”, “Hard or Soft?”. These are the questions being debated across every dinner table in the land. Well, not actually every dinner table. Some have simply had enough of it all, and have understandably switched off. Others are so pigheadedly confident in their views that they are unable to discuss them with anyone who thinks differently. Perhaps that is not surprising. We are descended from Viking raiders, after all, and in some families evolution of thought seems to have of stopped at the ninth century.
Yet views are certainly polarised, with Remainders prepared to go back on the verdict of the referendum and Leavers prepared to contemplate No Deal as the price of leaving the European Union. Those who feel strongly will tell you that they considered the arguments carefully and found one set or the other convincing. That may be so in the case of economics experts such as Mark Carney or Mervyn King but in most cases it is poppycock. In my own case, the decision to vote Remain merely reflected the approach I took in the early 1970s when the horse I was riding bolted.
Being on a bolting horse is never a pleasant experience but it is particularly nasty if the bolting takes place along the tangled lanes of North Devon in the summer. Essentially have a choice. You can throw yourself off and land on the tarmac at a speed of somewhere between 25 and 30 miles an hour. You will probably be injured, but are likely to survive. The alternative is to grip with your knees, tug ineffectively on the reins in the hope of slowing the animal, and hope for the best. If you are lucky you will come out uninjured but if one of those bends conceals a heavy lorry or a combine harvester the impact is likely to be fatal. After looking from the unyielding road surface to the forthcoming bends a number of times, I decided to hang on. It turned out to be the right decision, because when the horse eventually hit a car and stumbled over its bonnet, I was thrown clear and only winded. It was a frightening experience, but it taught me something. When faced with a crisis I tend to hang on rather than jump.
The choice on Brexit was a little similar. There we were, dragged along as part of an organisation which in democratic terms is clearly out of control. Should we take a decisive step and accept the inevitable pain, or should we go with the flow and hope for the best with the danger of it all leading to a major road accident in due course? My instincts were for the latter, but they are not necessarily right. Similar instincts guided the appeasers in the late 1930s, and there the road accident was worse than anything which they could have imagined. Still, I am sure that I was not alone. W S Gilbert probably went too far in Iolanthe, when he wrote:
“That every boy and every gal
That’s born into the world alive
Is either a little Liberal
Or else a little Conservative!”
But it is probably true that for most of us, our approach to difficult political decisions derives as much from our characters and genetic make-up as it does to reasoned argument.
So, bearing in mind that the country is split and that reasoned argument is unlikely to sort it, where do we go now? There are three main options on the table: a hard Brexit without a deal; Mrs May’s agreement; and, if the European Court of Justice supports the view of their Advocate General that it is possible to withdraw a notice under article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon, no Brexit at all. If the politicians cannot make up their mind the matter will have to be put to the public in a further referendum. That has to be Mrs May’s plan B and it would at least provide a decisive answer and set a firm course for the next twenty years or so.
Because there are three options, the referendum would have to be decided by a system of transferable votes. That means that:
- each voter would express a first and second preference;
- after counting the first preference votes only, the least popular option would be eliminated; and then
- in the final round, the second preference votes of those whose first preference had been eliminated would be taken into account.
The advantage of this is that it prevents the result being distorted by a split vote. For example, there would be no risk of ending up with a decision to retract the article 50 notice simply because the Leave votes were split between a hard Brexit and Mrs May’s agreement. There is another advantage, too. With a transferable vote system you can add some wackier options (“trust us: we will negotiate an eat your cake and have it deal”) without distorting the ultimate result.
If Mrs May fails to get her deal though the Commons and if, as is likely, the European Court of Justice supports the Advocate General, this is where it is likely to go. That will be a comfort to businessmen worried about a hard Brexit because a “no deal departure” is unpopular with the public and any other solution will give them the friction-free trading that they need.