Brexit referendum

Critics of the UK’s decision to leave the European Union often suggest that the country should be asked to vote again; citing the narrow margin of the result or a lack of clarity of what a ‘leave’ vote meant. However, a second referendum is not as easy, or as helpful, as it may seem - as Shadow Brexit Secretary, Sir Keir Starmer explained to us at a business round-table event in Bury.

A common lament from many of our members is why we can’t reverse Brexit and halt this seemingly perilous track to abandoning the ‘tried and trusted’ customs, trade and workforce arrangements we have with the EU. With some looking for a second referendum as a final safety net before we hit the March deadline.

In our recent audience with Shadow Brexit Secretary, Sir Keir Starmer, at a business round table in Bury we asked whether a second referendum was a realistic option.

James Frith, MP for Bury North, speaking on behalf of constituents who voted with a small but meaningful majority (54.1%) to leave recognised that many who opted to leave did so simply to hold accountable a system that had poorly served Britain’s regional economies and, for decades, had favoured its capital. The outcome and implications of ‘leave’ were not necessarily what voters wanted but their desire to rebel was so much stronger and compelling.

He feels British politicians need to “transform society so ‘leave’ is not an attractive option”. Recognising the disenfranchised across the region, he was clear that ‘transformation’ should have been an option in the vote. In Bury, as in many of the regions voters were, and still are, looking to protest at an inequality of investment. Obviously two years down the line all this is a moot point, but we are having to now pick up the pieces for years of government mis-management.

It’s now plain to see, the referendum vote was an over-simple choice – in or out. As Sir Keir said, “the burning problem is that the ballot paper only had one question on it. Choosing ‘out’ raised thousands more questions that we’re now having to answer.

"It’s now plain to see, the referendum vote was an over-simple choice – in or out. As Sir Keir said, “the burning problem is that the ballot paper only had one question on it. Choosing ‘out’ raised thousands more questions that we’re now having to answer”.

The reality is, the outcome of the referendum is forcing us to answer questions about how we construct our trade arrangements, manage our borders and establish regulations afresh whilst for many businesses, change is neither needed or wanted. No-one “voted to break the economic model” but that is what has happened, and we are all now more aware of those consequences.

There is no doubt more and more people are talking about a second referendum or a vote on the deal, to check that we’re making the right decision. “People are getting very worried about the mess we’re in” says Sir Keir, but as he explains there’s an inevitability to the current situation. “If you don’t have a [second] vote, remain can’t be an option” he explains. In short, we must deal with the situation we’re in. We voted to leave and we must reach an arrangement that satisfies the EU. For business and the economy, it is vital this keeps Britain as close to a customs union and a strong single market as possible. “Labour isn’t calling for it [second referendum], but we wouldn’t rule it out” he adds.

Polling suggests that if there were to be a second referendum, and if a satisfactory question could be found, the result would be almost the same, very evenly balanced.

Sir Keir was correct when he says “if you put ‘no deal’ on the ballot paper you have to deal with the outcome”. If Britain were to leave without a deal there would be the option to re-join at a later date and more than likely as an accession state, bringing new dilemmas as re-entering would almost certainly mean sacrificing our currency for the Euro, giving up rebates and opt outs. In other words, we would be more of a “proper” member of the EU than we have been in the last 40 odd years.

Could we drift into a ‘no deal’ scenario? With just eight months to go until Brexit and the Chequers customs proposal recently rejected by Michel Barnier, the scenario of Britain leaving without an agreed arrangement seems to be a growing possibility as we drift closer to the autumn deadline for settling the deal.

Is it possible to postpone the decision? Technically putting off or extending Article 50 would be difficult and with the EU parliamentary elections in May 2019, prolonging negotiations would mean spilling into the election period and the confusing situation for Britain to be simultaneously selecting MEP candidates whilst negotiating on scrapping its involvement entirely.

The question for government now should be how to best preserve the single market and customs union whilst reaching a leave arrangement with EU that satisfies everyone. And how to do so quickly. In reality this has always been the question and the core problem of Brexit someone will be disappointed at the outcome. At present who that is as much of a wild guess as a result of considered policy making and definitely  something another referendum is even less likely to solve.

Sir Keir Starmer