20 December 2018
Toss The Coin
Or put it to the vote.
By John Watson
In the 1978 Islington Council elections one of the wards was tied. Exactly the same number of votes had been cast for the Conservative and Labour candidates who were contesting the third seat and successive recounts revealed no discrepancy. What to do? You cannot put two people on the same chair. Should the two candidates alternate, taking six months each? No, that wouldn’t work either. Some other way of resolving the position had to be found and so the returning officer resorted to the drawing of straws. The Tory drew the short straw so the Labour man was elected and, although out of courtesy Labour invited the losing Tory to sit on a number of committees, a decision was reached which all parties accepted. They could of course have tossed a coin.
If Mrs May cannot secure a majority for her deal, reinforced by whatever assurances she can obtain from Brussels, we are going to have to find another way of reaching a decision. As there are three distinct alternatives – staying in, the May deal, and a hard Brexit – tossing a coin will not really work. Drawing straws sounds a bit odd inside the M25, so that leaves us with the second referendum. It won’t necessary come up with the best answer, but nor for that matter will a debate between members of the House of Commons. At least it would be a clear direction with some sort of democratic imprint upon it, and that can only be an improvement on where we are now.
Unsurprisingly, a course which might result in our remaining has brought the more empty-headed Brexiteers gibbering out of the woodwork. Much nonsense is talked about the risk of undermining the people’s “will” as if that was a never changing quantity, and crackpot theories abound. My own favourite is the idea that if a second referendum came up “stay” we should have a third one as a decider, as if we were running some sort of sporting tournament. Still, perhaps even that isn’t as empty-headed as the MPs who say that the House of Commons should now take control of the process. You do not need to be an expert in logistics to spot that 600+ squabbling self-regarding politicians couldn’t take control of a tricycle and that a leader would have to emerge. Who would that be? The Speaker? Stepping down in his robes of state like a headmaster quelling a riot in the lower fifth? The Queen? Taking the view that if her subjects have made such a hash of democracy a hereditary autocrat could hardly do worse? No, it would have to be the person who commands a majority in the House of Commons. Who is that? Well, er, the Prime Minister, who the Conservative party have just preserved in office.
In the end a referendum it will have to be and, as we have said before in this column, there will need to be a single transferable vote with at least three options. Once Mrs may has announced it, and she surely will, it will be very difficult for any politician to stand against it. What, Boris? Will you and your friends go harrumphing around, refusing the public their say on the basis that that could lose you Brexit, as if Brexit was some sort of private property? Not an easy line to pursue. What, Sir Kier? Refuse to put “hard brexit” on the ballot paper because you think that the public are too stupid to be trusted with that choice? Fie on the lot of you. The issue of Brexit was passed to the public in 2016 and the electorate know a great deal more about it now than they did then.
And still, by way of preparation Mrs May continues to press Brussels for reassurances. These would not change the words of the agreement but the expectation of how it would be applied and, curiously, they go very much to the nub of the matter. Mrs May, who has been involved in lengthy negotiations with the EU, believes them when they say that the back stop is an arrangement which everyone will work to avoid or to bring to an early close. The Brexiteers see it as a trap to keep us in the market for ever, unable to make trade agreements with others. Which is it really?
There is no answer to that. Different figures within the EU will see it in different ways and in any case many of them will have moved on before the transitional agreement comes to an end. When we come to vote we will need help on this issue, but it will not be help on whether we can trust the EU’s word but rather careful analysis as to whether preserving the back stop is likely to be in the EU’s best interest in a couple of years’ time.
If, when the transitional period comes to an end it, is felt that we are being manipulated and that there is no real effort being made to secure a trade deal, the EU will have 66 million people who hate them in the west of their market. It may be that that is what they are playing for, but I rather doubt it. Either way, let’s just get on with the vote.