Argument

Boris Johnson Needs a Second Referendum to Stay in Power

A general election in the wake of a chaotic no-deal Brexit is too great a risk. For a man who has always wanted to occupy No. 10 Downing St., a three-way referendum is the safest way to prolong his premiership.

Protesters including Leader of the Liberal Democrats Sir Vince Cable  and the Green Party's Caroline Lucas take part in the Put It To The People March on Whitehall on March 23 in London.
Protesters including Leader of the Liberal Democrats Sir Vince Cable and the Green Party's Caroline Lucas take part in the Put It To The People March on Whitehall on March 23 in London. Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

As soon as Boris Johnson became the United Kingdom’s prime minister last month, he appointed a new so-called war cabinet and tasked it with getting serious—and, more importantly, being seen to get serious—about preparing for the crisis that would ensue from a no-deal Brexit. It’s a crisis that he has the power to avoid at the stroke of his pen. But he has vowed to take the U.K. out of the European Union on Oct. 31 “do or die,” “no ifs or buts,” with or without a deal. 

The problem, for Johnson, is that British voters have never had the opportunity to vote on what kind of Brexit they want. Moreover, most members of Parliament oppose a no-deal Brexit. And yet Johnson claims to speak for, and to serve, the British people, pitting them against the House of Commons that represents them.

There is a good chance, however, that Johnson is bluffing about pursuing Brexit “by any means necessary” on Halloween. He has craved power for a very long time, famously saying he wanted to be “world king” when he was a child. Now that he is prime minister, it’s hard to believe he would risk sacrificing power at the altar of Brexit. Given the precariousness of his support in the House of Commons, on which his power depends, he knows that he will have to face an early general election. The goal of securing a mandate from the people is what drives everything he does now. It is the principal reason he brought Dominic Cummings into the heart of government as a special advisor. Cummings was the director of the official Vote Leave campaign in 2016, in which Johnson also played a leading role. Evidently, the old Vote Leave team is hoping for a second victory.

Johnson says he would prefer to strike a new deal with the EU. That must be believed. Leaving the EU without a deal would be a disastrous scenario for the country—a reckless and unprecedented form of national self-harm. The government can do only so much to mitigate the risks, including the risks of chaos at the borders and shortages of food and medicine, leading to panic buying. And the U.K. will still have to negotiate a free trade agreement with the EU, and in doing so it will face the same problems that Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, encountered in the withdrawal negotiations.

So, it’s no surprise that Johnson would want to leave with a deal. But he must know that the EU will not renegotiate the agreement it struck with May’s government. And, in any case, if he tried to sell a subtly reworded deal to members of parliament, his support base would desert him. Now that May is out of the picture, they can see that a no-deal Brexit is within their grasp.

If he were to succeed in taking the country out of the EU without a deal, against the wishes of MPs and in breach of constitutional convention, he would have to face the consequences in an early general election, at a time when the country will be in chaos.

It appears, then, that Johnson is planning to take the country out of the EU without a deal and then blame the harmful consequences on the EU’s unwillingness to renegotiate. In his first speech as prime minister, he said that the country must “prepare for the remote possibility that Brussels refuses any further to negotiate, and we are forced to come out with no deal.” He added that this was “not because we want that outcome, of course not, but because it is only common sense to prepare.” (This is misleading, to put it mildly. If the prime minister and Parliament don’t want to leave without a deal, the EU cannot force them to.)

However, Johnson must also know that there is no majority in Parliament for leaving without a deal. MPs will seek to do everything they can to block him. There is some concern that this might not be enough. Cummings has signaled that if a majority of MPs vote to bring down the government in a motion of no confidence—which would entail some Conservative MPs voting against their own leadership—Johnson might try to ignore them and force through a no-deal Brexit regardless. He might, for instance, try to schedule a general election for November, after Brexit happens by default. Or he might advise the Queen to shut down Parliament or advise her to refuse royal assent if Parliament tries to legislate to prevent the U.K. leaving on Oct. 31. There may well be no law preventing him from doing any of these things. But any such course of action would breach conventions that go to the core of the U.K.’s unwritten constitution.  

If he were to succeed in taking the country out of the EU without a deal, against the wishes of MPs and in breach of constitutional convention, he would have to face the consequences in an early general election, at a time when the country will be in chaos. He could try to schedule an election for Nov. 1, as Cummings has suggested, or even Oct. 31 itself, so as to win votes from both Brexiteer hard-liners and moderates before the damaging effects of a no-deal Brexit become apparent. But the panic of a chaotic Brexit would already have started. It’s hard to believe he would want an election in those circumstances. He would have achieved Brexit—but almost certainly at the cost of cutting short his time in 10 Downing Street. And staying in No. 10 is Johnson’s No. 1 priority.

Today, most Brexiteers are implacably opposed to another referendum. It’s not clear why. There’s nothing about democracy that requires decisions to be fully implemented before people are allowed to change their minds. 

The 2016 Brexit referendum was intended by David Cameron, then the prime minister, to be decisive—to be what he called a “once and for all” decision. Yet the vote to leave the EU could not possibly be decisive because it could not possibly tell us what “leave” meant. It’s clear that to leave the EU means to cease to be a member of the EU. But there are over 160 countries that are not members of the EU. It’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that each of them has a different relationship with the bloc. There’s a spectrum, ranging from a soft to a hard Brexit. The referendum result didn’t say which of these options the U.K. government should choose. The referendum gave voters a choice between Remain and Leave, but there was no plan for what to do if Leave won.

Before the referendum, Cummings suggested a plan—though it’s one that some Brexiteers would now like to forget. In 2015, he argued that there should be a second referendum once the government had negotiated a deal. According to the Sunday Times political editor Tim Shipman, Johnson told friends at the time that he agreed with the double-referendum plan. However, Cameron opposed the idea, so it never got off the ground. Cameron’s fear was that people would be more likely to vote Leave if they thought they could change their minds later. Of course, that was one of the reasons why Cummings supported the plan.

Undeterred by Cameron, Cummings thought that, in the event of a Leave win, Cameron would resign and be succeeded by someone—he was convinced it would be Johnson—who would offer a second referendum on a negotiated deal. “We obviously wouldn’t oppose that, if that’s what senior politicians want to offer,” Cummings told the Economist in January 2016. “I think there’s a strong democratic case for it.” Today, most Brexiteers are implacably opposed to another referendum. It’s not clear why. Some say it would be undemocratic for the majority’s decision in 2016 to be reversed by a majority’s decision today. But there’s nothing about democracy that requires decisions to be fully implemented before people are allowed to change their minds.

Cummings and his plan for a second referendum divided Leave campaigners. It was opposed by the unofficial campaign group, Leave.EU, organized by Arron Banks, whose record-high financial support of the campaign is now under criminal investigation. Banks, one of the self-described “bad boys of Brexit”—along with Nigel Farage, who was then the leader of the UK Independence Party—opposed a second referendum because he wanted to leave the EU without a deal. Brexit supporters have always been divided about what kind of Brexit they want. But in the three years since the referendum, surprising numbers have moved toward the position of Banks and Farage. The success of Farage’s new Brexit Party, which eats away at the Tory base, explains why Johnson is now hellbent on pursuing a policy of Brexit at any cost, with or without a deal. 

Johnson may be bluffing, but he’s doing all he can to show voters that he is serious about a no-deal Brexit, in order to neutralize the threat from Farage. Seeing that strategy, Farage accused Cummings of not being a “true believer” in Brexit, in part because of the second-referendum plan. The hatred between the two men is well known. In the 2016 campaign, Cummings saw Farage as a liability (especially on immigration) who needed to be marginalized in order to attract moderates. 

A general election, either before or after Brexit happens, is too big a gamble for Johnson.

In these circumstances, a general election, either before or after Brexit happens, is too big a gamble for Johnson. Even if he manages to pin the blame for holding the election—and potentially delaying Brexit—on MPs, thereby setting the scene for a “people versus Parliament” contest, the likelihood that an election would produce another hung Parliament, with no party able to command a majority, is high. 

More important, in the unlikely event that an election produced an overall Conservative majority, it would still not resolve the issue of Brexit. An election, even one dominated by a single policy debate, is generally not a good way to resolve a single issue. It would be even less likely to resolve the particular issue of Brexit. That’s not only because Britain would still need to negotiate a relationship with the EU following a no-deal Brexit. It’s also because, not surprisingly, many people, having bypassed representative democracy in 2016, believe that the only legitimate way to resolve the Brexit impasse is to let the people make another direct choice in another referendum. 

Holding another referendum might be the safest gamble for Johnson. That was his original gut feeling. The key questions facing the country—Is May’s deal a bad deal? Is no deal better than a bad deal? Or is remaining better than no deal? And is remaining also better than May’s deal?—are ones that voters have not had the chance to answer. 

Campaigners for a “people’s vote” or confirmatory referendum disagree about how it should be done. Some suggest that there should be one question with two options, but they can’t agree which two options should be on the ballot paper. Others, including my colleague Vernon Bogdanor, have suggested holding two referendums: The first would ask voters to choose between Leave and Remain; if Leave wins again, the next referendum would ask voters to choose between the government’s deal and no deal. 

But suppose Leave wins in the first vote again. A second referendum along these lines would not allow for the possibility that some Leave voters would prefer Remain over no deal and other Leave voters would prefer Remain over the negotiated deal, with the result that there might be an overall majority for Remain when the three concrete options are considered together. There’s a good case, then, for having a referendum that has all three options—Remain, no deal, and the negotiated deal—on the ballot paper. If that happens, there’s a reasonable chance that all sides will be able to respect the result.

The Marquis de Condorcet, an 18th-century French philosopher, recognized that the fairest way for people to vote when there are three options is to divide the options into a series of one-to-one contests. The overall winner—known as the “Condorcet winner”—is the option that beats both the others when compared one-to-one. 

It would not be enough simply to have the largest number of first-preference votes, and a process allowing one of the options to drop out so that the second-preference votes can be redistributed would have distorting effects. In order for no deal to emerge as the overall winner, it would need to have a majority when compared one-to-one with the negotiated deal and a majority when compared one-to-one with Remain. There’s a risk that this process will produce no overall winner, thereby resembling the children’s game of rock-paper-scissors, in which no option defeats both of the other two. That’s perhaps unlikely in the context of Brexit, because most pro-Remain voters are likely to choose Remain over both forms of Leave, and most pro-Leave voters are likely to choose either form of Leave over Remain. But it can’t be ruled out.

Cummings has said that, if there is a second referendum, the “Vote Leave 2” campaign will win by a wider margin than before. Now that he is in government with Johnson, he has a chance to test that thesis. It might just be the only way to keep Johnson in the job he has craved all his life.

James Grant is a senior lecturer in law at King’s College London. Twitter: @JAGrant

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