A three-option Brexit referendum? It’s more likely than you might think

The mad riddle of Brexit is not that a deal with the EU isn’t achievable, it is that a deal isn’t possible without the real risk of a split in whichever political party or coalition is in power.

The EU has already offered two possible solutions: ‘Norway’ plus customs union or ‘Canada’ plus a special deal for Northern Ireland. However, a deal that doesn’t involve either a border on the island of Ireland or in the Irish sea, or the UK as a whole being part of the single market and accepting freedom of movement is simply not possible. As both Conservatives and Labour have stated that freedom of movement will end, and ruled out a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, this is the riddle.  

Unable to agree among themselves, politicians may turn to the public once again. “Let the people decide” could be an attractive option when faced with the prospect of a party split or taking the blame for an outcome wanted by few. But what type of second referendum would they choose? Any vote that offers just two choices would be seen by a significant minority of the electorate as anti-democratic.

A binary choice between a soft Brexit (whether EEA membership, or something bespoke) and a Canada deal with a special arrangement for Northern Ireland would be hated by Remainers. That isn’t the kind of “people’s vote” Remainers are calling for. They argue for a choice between the final deal achievable by this government (likely to be some sort of soft Brexit) and remaining in the EU. This, in turn, would be detested by Brexiteers. As both main political parties claim to represent both Remainers and Leavers, a binary referendum doesn’t have much to offer.

That raises the possibility of a multi-option referendum. The idea sounds alien to British ears. Those suggesting it, Tony Blair and Justine Greening, don’t currently hold much weight in their respective parties. But in this strange new political world the idea of a ‘preferendum’ isn’t even in the top ten strangest ideas. And strange doesn’t necessarily mean unlikely.

Multiple choice referendums have been held at least 19 times in other countries – on issues such as the constitutional relationship between Puerto Rico and the USA, the electoral system of New Zealand and nuclear energy in Sweden.

Voting in such a referendum would work in a similar way to the transferable or alternative vote electoral systems. Similar methods are already used for elected mayors in England and Wales, and in elections in Northern Ireland and Scotland. Each option is ranked by the voter, and the second preferences of those voting for losing options are redistributed until one outcome is the clear winner.  

Cross-party agreement on avoiding a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland means that there are broadly three alternatives. First, remaining in the EU on present terms including accepting some recognisable form of freedom of movement. For this option to be viable, the Article 50 period would need to be extended. Second, British membership of the single market and a customs union, including freedom of movement. Third, a Great Britain-EU free trade agreement, with Northern Ireland membership of the single market for goods and a customs union. This option, which has been put forward by the EU, could see the UK end freedom of movement. In theory, a fourth option could be included: a free trade agreement for the whole of the UK with a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland (and a concomitant risk of violence).

Whether it is a three or four option referendum, there are a host of reasons not to do this. Formulating the question would be difficult. The British public, vaguely aware that things aren’t going well but unaware of the importance of the Northern Irish border to the choices, would need an intensive public education campaign. There is also that small matter of securing an extension to the Article 50 time period; a request that would likely be agreed if it were seen by the EU27 as a genuine attempt to resolving the situation.

Nevertheless, there are good party management reasons to think that, in extremis, this idea might become attractive. For the Conservatives, such a referendum could be a way to resolve the dilemma of being unable to deliver a so-called ‘clean Brexit’ and end alignment with EU single market rules and customs arrangements without losing their DUP parliamentary crutch. For Labour Remainers, this approach offers their only chance to overturn the first referendum result. More pertinently, for the Labour leadership, both more favourable to a hard Brexit and more sympathetic to Irish nationalism, a multiple choice referendum would provide them some political cover for introducing a regulatory and customs border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

For all politicians, a preferendum offers the certainty of an ‘extend and pretend’ period of party unity, and the possibility of a clear mandate. Our politicians, desperate to avoid splitting their parties and being described in the same breath as Ramsay Macdonald or Robert Peel, might soon find themselves reaching out for this strange idea.

Nick Donovan is campaign director at an anti-corruption NGO and a member of Labour’s National Policy Forum.

More from LabourList