Back in early June 2016, a few days before the referendum was held, I was asked by Newsnight if I would call for a second referendum if Remain narrowly won. I have had a long-standing belief that the UK’s best future lies outside of the EU. I campaigned and voted to leave the EU in the referendum. Even though the expectation was the Remainers would win, I made it clear that I would respect the outcome no matter how close.
We now know that the result was close, but clear: the Leave campaign won and the negotiations are ongoing. My willingness to respect an outcome I didn’t want is just as relevant now that we ended up with a result I did want.
My first argument was that the already damaged public trust in politics and democracy would be damaged even further if the political elites – like me – said to voters, “I don’t like your answer, give me a different one.” A huge lesson that we need to learn from the referendum was that millions of British people felt that they weren’t being listened to.
Members of the public feeling that their votes don’t matter and that they don’t have a voice isn’t a new phenomenon and it’s not unique to the UK. There have been political upsets in the US and many European countries. The rise of populist candidates and parties is, in part, driven by millions of voters feeling powerless in the face of the political establishment.
Politicians, lobbyists, business leaders and commentators in the media telling factory workers, builders, truck drivers and retail staff that they didn’t really understand what they were voting for and they should try again until they get it right would be the most insulting and corrosive message imaginable.
Commentators increasingly describe a second referendum as “the first referendum on the final deal”. This is less insulting and more thoughtful than telling people that they aren’t clever enough to understand their own democratic choices – but it is just as corrosive, for a couple of reasons.
First, we need to look at the question on the ballot. Referendum questions need to be binary and based on a simple proposition – and a referendum on a proposed trade relationship would fulfil neither criteria. A trade agreement with the EU would be large and complicated. The referendum question would need to make reference to the document, likely to run to many hundreds or thousands of pages, prior to asking if the agreement between the UK and the EU should be accepted.
The referendum question is likely to say, “Should the UK Government accept or reject the proposed EU relationship treaty?” If the majority of voters say that the deal is acceptable then life becomes easy: we ratify the agreement, leave the EU and set sail towards the future in good heart. But what happens if the majority reject the deal?
Should a “Reject” vote be interpreted as an instruction to the negotiators to try again? Would it mean we should leave with no deal and revert to World Trade Organisation rules? Would we leave the EU at all? A “Reject” vote would trigger a period of uncertainty that would be hugely counterproductive to British interests.
The second concern is about perverse incentives for the negotiators. It should be everyone’s priority for the UK to get the best possible outcome from these negotiations. A good result is important for our economy, which funds our public services, good for social cohesion, and good for our future international trading partners in Europe and beyond. Providing our negotiation partner with an incentive to not strike a mutually beneficial deal is foolish beyond belief.
Implying that a “bad deal” would make the UK stay in the EU would distort the negotiations and doom them to failure. There is a belief that some Remain campaigners would love the negotiations to collapse so that they can say, “I told you so”. If this belief is reinforced by circumstances it would increase, rather than reduce, social tensions. Bad faith negotiations would be damaging to our economy, our social cohesion and our politics.
The best chance for a good outcome would be for us all to accept the outcome of the referendum, accept that we are leaving the EU, strike a mutually beneficial deal with the EU, and focus on the other issues that the Government is responsible for.
James Cleverly is Conservative MP for Braintree who campaigned for Leave