On the Referendum #6: Exit plans and a second referendum

[NB. This blog was published in June 2015 but pundits have written about it since then so I’ve added some links at the bottom.]

There are three connected questions that add up to some interesting problems for both sides of the referendum debate:

1) Will the Government suggest a second referendum? Offering a second vote would give them the opportunity to reverse a loss in the first, so that YES means victory and NO does not necessarily mean defeat. European governments have held second votes repeatedly over the past quarter century. One can imagine them saying: ‘If the public votes NO we will have to negotiate an exit deal with the EU and we believe that it is only right that the public has a vote on the final deal.’ If it did, it would be likely that Labour would do the same. Perhaps Labour will suggest this and the Government would feel obliged to agree.

2) Should NO demand a second referendum in the hope of forcing the parties to commit to one? One can see why NO might argue for a second vote. It enables NO to make a NO vote seem much less risky. ‘If you vote YES, you won’t get another vote for another 40 years – if ever. You should vote NO to Cameron’s rubbish deal. If you vote NO, you will force a new Government to negotiate a new deal and give you a new vote. A NO vote is much safer than a YES vote.’ Further, as a matter of democratic accountability, given the enormous importance of so many issues that would be decided in an Article 50 renegotiation – a far, far bigger deal than a normal election – it seems right to give people a vote on it.

3) Does NO need to have a unified plan for exit? A Government trying to leave the EU obviously needs an exit plan. The SNP needed an exit plan. But the NO campaign is neither a political party nor a government. It has no locus to negotiate a new deal. Does it need an exit plan, or does that simply provide an undefendable target and open an unwinnable debate for a non-government entity?

A. Creating an exit plan that makes sense and which all reasonable people could unite around seems an almost insuperable task. Eurosceptic groups have been divided for years about many of the basic policy and political questions. An interesting attempt at such a plan is FLEXCIT based on using the EEA as a transition phase – remaining in the Single Market and retaining a (modified) version of free movement – while a better deal, inevitably taking years, is negotiated. This is an attempt to take the Single Market out of the referendum debate. I will discuss the merits of this idea another time when I’ve studied it more.

B. Even if one succeeded, the sheer complexity of leaving would involve endless questions of detail that cannot be answered in such a plan even were it to be 20,000 pages long, and the longer it is the more errors are likely. On top of the extremely complex policy issues is a feedback loop – constructing such a plan depends partly on inherently uncertain assumptions about what is politically sellable in a referendum, making it even harder to rally support behind a plan. Further, in market research I have done it is clear that 15 years after the euro debate the general public know nothing more about the EU institutions than they did then. Less than 1% have heard of the EEA. Few MPs know the difference between the EEA and EFTA or the intricacies of the WTO rules. The idea that the public could be effectively educated about such things in the time we have seems unlikely.

C. There is much to be gained by swerving the whole issue. No10 is dusting off its lines from the Scottish referendum. Perhaps they can be neutralised.

‘Different people have different ideas about the best way to leave. For example, some people suggest we should leave the EU but simply remain in the Single Market while we negotiate a new deal. Others have different ideas. Global rules set by the World Trade Organisation provide some guarantees against European countries discriminating against British trade. But none of this is the real point. We are not a Government. We can’t negotiate anything. A NO vote as a simple matter of law does not mean that we leave the EU tomorrow. A NO vote really means that a new government team must negotiate a new deal with the EU and they will have to give us a vote on it. If you want the EU to keep all the power it has and keep taking more power as it has for decades, and you’re happy paying billions to the EU every year instead of putting it into the NHS – then vote YES. If you want to say ‘stop’, vote NO and you will get another chance to vote on the new deal.  If the country votes YES, we’ve lost our chance to change anything. We may not get another vote for decades, after we’ve had to bail out euro countries and had another few decades of the EU’s useless and inhumane immigration policy. If the country votes NO, we can force politicians to get us a better deal.’

This approach might allow NO to avoid its biggest problem – the idea that a NO vote is a vote to leave in one jump and is therefore a leap in the dark. It would allow NO to portray YES as the truly risky option. This approach would enable NO to build a coalition between a) those who think we should just leave (about a third) and b) those who dislike the EU but are worried about leaving (about a third) and who may be persuaded that ‘Cameron’s deal is bad and we should try to get a better one but the only way to force this is to vote NO’.

This approach would be based on a legal and political fact: a NO vote would not mean that we had, or immediately would, leave. The day after a NO vote our legal situation would be identical to today: we would remain a member. A NO vote might mean the government is obliged to start negotiating to leave, presumably under Article 50, though many questions arise such as – would the PM have to resign, if not how could he credibly negotiate such a deal, and what about the timing given a 2020 election and it may have to happen with a new PM, etc? What a NO vote really means would depend upon what the political parties say they will do and this remains unclear as these issues have not been explored yet.

There is no clear answer to these problems. The conundrum is inherent in the fact that those who want to change our relationship with the EU are operating in a very hostile environment. Campaigners forced David Cameron to have a renegotiation and referendum instead of focusing efforts on building a national movement that could be used by a leader who actually wanted to leave and could therefore do it in an optimal way.

But – we are where we are, the referendum is going to happen. How to maximise chances of avoiding disaster?

Expanding the debate to consider a second negotiation and a second referendum offers potential advantages. It also has potential disadvantages. But as a matter of fact a NO vote does not mean we would immediately leave and it seems likely that the parties will be forced by public opinion to offer a second vote, and therefore this could be turned to the advantage of NO. There is no escape from the fact that ending the legal supremacy of EU law is an extremely complex enterprise, unravelling decades of legislation, legal judgements, and practice. There is no scenario in which all the problems caused by the EU can be solved in one swift stroke.

I have not reached any conclusion. These are the sort of things that need to be discussed BEFORE a NO campaign launches officially. In the euro campaign we pursued Sun Tzu’s maxim – ‘winning without fighting is the highest form of war’ so we tried to stop a referendum happening. The situation now is different and much more dangerous. In such a situation, going along with the conventional wisdom could easily mean losing in a conventional way. The current landscape means the NO side faces disaster if it loses but no victory even if it wins. In such circumstances, it is wise to consider ways to reshape the landscape.

To those who say these discussions should happen only in private, I strongly disagree. Much about a campaign has to remain secret but these big questions are necessarily part of public debate. A decade has been largely wasted. These big things must be confronted now in parallel to establishing a professional campaigning organisation and public discussion raises the probability of the NO campaign getting things right.

Please leave comments / corrections etc below.

Ps. There is also the issue of what happens with the euro and a new IGC/Treaty. It is likely there will have to be one, the Monnetists want one, and they always see disasters in Leninist fashion as ‘beneficial crises’. So there is also the prospect of a UK government being forced to have another referendum on a future Treaty. One way or another, the first referendum is unlikely to be the end of the matter. It takes a long time to correct a huge historical error, if it can be done at all.

Ps2. [Added 28 June.]

In the Sunday Times, 28 June, Tim Shipman writes re Boris reading the above:

‘Boris Johnson is preparing to call for a “no” vote in Britain’s referendum on the European Union in an attempt to extract greater concessions from Brussels than David Cameron is demanding.

‘In a stance that puts him on a collision course with the prime minister, the mayor of London believes Britain should reject any deal Cameron puts forward because the EU will not give enough ground.

‘Johnson has told friends that a “no” vote is desirable because it would prompt Brussels to offer a much better deal, which the public could then support in a second referendum.

‘Johnson said: “We need to be bold. You have to show them that you are serious.”

‘The mayor’s views, shared with friends last week, will send shockwaves through Downing Street. Both the “yes” and “no” camps had assumed that he would support Cameron in arguing for Britain to vote yes.

‘Johnson made the comments after reading a blog by Dominic Cummings, the former Tory aide who is organising the “no” campaign, in which he argued that Eurosceptics should say: “If you want to say ‘stop’, vote no and you will get another chance to vote on the new deal.”

‘A friend of the mayor said: “I don’t think in his heart Boris wants us to walk away. But he’s interested in us saying no because it won’t be what we want. That would mean a second vote. He thinks the only way to deal with these people is to play hardball.” …’


15 October 2015

Three columnists have written about this blog today.

1. Matthew Parris in the Spectator.

2. Simon Jenkins in the Guardian.

3. James Kirkup in the Telegraph.

They all have interesting points that I’ll answer when I have some time.

NB. Fans of Colonel Boyd…


29 thoughts on “On the Referendum #6: Exit plans and a second referendum

  1. Pingback: 'No' campaign chief pushes idea of two referendums - Spectator Blogs

  2. “The idea that the public could be effectively educated about such things in the time we have seems unlikely.”

    Overlooking the fact that we can and we have – IF we get in early enough. Kippers tend to be pretty dumb but if you throw them a bone with a winning factoid or two they will run with it quite effectively. We have already got an operation running on Twitter putting certain “steering facts” out into the mix, and the rest seems to slot into place when you lay the foundations.

    We already have a team able to answer questions of activists to help them strengthen their arguments and with funding we will be able to recruit more and show them how to win. And for that we will need message discipline – which is why we need a plan. Flexcit sidesteps the issues we lose on and reframes the debate to one the opposition are not prepared to have.

    In this case, it’s not about convincing the masses or even reaching them. It’s about winning the confidence of opinion formers or at least cutting off their arguments at the source, intercepting them before they become memes. At the very least we can throw enough into the mix to make hacks think twice about running hackneyed arguments we’re likely to demolish.

    If we don’t have good answers and some common direction then Brexit absolutely IS a leap into the dark and we will lose. If we win the no campaign then has political traction to force a debate about the solution we propose – and if not, at least the Brexit terms reside in the parameters we have already rehearsed.

    The general election proved for Ukip that they could only get so far with populist slogans. Their failure to produce the intellectual goods and show there was an intellectual product behind them was their greatest vulnerability from day one. You know well enough that this campaign cannot be run with kippers grunting about foreigners with Aids – so we have to be the other side of the coin that has something to say that stands up to scrutiny and covers all the bases. Without that people will say the no camp is incoherent. And they’ll be right.


    • I agree with some of this but it does not answer the crucial questions I describe that an official NO campaign has to answer. Does it push for a 2nd referendum? What does it do if none of the key players can unite around around a detailed exit plan? etc. You are much more optimistic than me about the possibilities of getting detailed message some. Training activists is, obviously, entirely different from mass communication. 15 years after the euro debate, imagine the millions of words and hundreds of front page stories on the EU – yet people know little more about it than in 2002. This doesn’t mean it is impossible but it does mean it is very hard and one has to plan on realistic assumptions.
      Best wishes


      • …’What does it do if none of the key players can unite around a detailed exit plan’..

        Much as I like hypotheticals and I’m only too happy to construct many of my own, I’m of the opinion that’s a step too far at this particular point in time. First and foremost, workable and credible withdrawal [or ‘No’] formulae should be in place and then be subjected to critical peer review. Where shown to be workable, or with at least sufficient credibility, a ‘No’ campaign should seriously consider running with those options. If then we see a Judean People’s Front\People’s Front of Judea divide only then could we attend to the nature of the rift and create solutions – albeit even if only temporary solutions throughout the period of the official campaign. In that case it’s simply ‘United for a ‘No’ Vote’.

        ‘United’ around a specific plan may have to represent an extremely elastic term. There are all too many figures within the debate who are serenely unaware they can’t even elicit a description of what they want to achieve outside the EU, let alone assemble a coherent plan to win such a campaign. However, a plan with sufficient force carried by the ‘No’ campaign – as you’ve alluded to previously – is not one a putative Government is under an obligation to recognise.

        In that case, it can at least serve as a capable reserve option. Under that circumstance, a ‘No’ result recorded will prove to be the decisive initial step, in particular where that Government (let’s face facts – ‘this’ Government) has no demonstrable appetite for withdrawal. If it proves to be so inertia-bound as to dither over formulation of an alternative, then it has a blueprint nailed to its desk already.

        Finally, there’s an interesting corollary to your point here. Demonstrably, neither the Government, Parliament nor the official ‘Yes’ campaign can currently unite around a plan. Because nobody knows what that future EU will actually look like yet. There are plenty who will stay in come what may, or don’t even believe it needs reforms. Would stay in if ‘reformed’ but are unaware what a ‘reformed’ EU looks like or even be able to define what ‘reformed’ means in their own heads. We can create a stable illustration of what withdrawal will create. Currently, the ‘Yes’ campaign cannot say the same about continued membership. A useful phenomenon to take advantage of.


  3. There is the assumption that a “yes” vote is a vote for the status quo, and that this inertia will have to be overcome in order to generate enthusiasm for a “no”. This lets the “yes” side off the hook. The period since the last referendum has seen a wholesale transformation of the entity the country voted to stay in the last time. Given that the Euro will drive treaty change either to create an optimal currency area or to allow countries to leave we know, with certainty, that the EU will have to undergo further change in the decades to come. An articulation of any credible destination for the EU is very unlikely to be a statement that it will remain just as it happens to be right now.

    So a “Yes” is just as much a leap in the dark as a “no” and the status quo is not an option open to the electorate.


    • Forgot to mention that the idea of a second referendum is also cooked into a “yes” just as much as it is cooked into a “no” as described above. Any IGC / Treaty change is going to require a referendum under current legislation.


    • That is not my assumption. I wrote the opposite. The YES side intends to portray itself as a ‘status quo’ option. It is not because the EU is a dynamic process. This has to be communicated. It MAY be easier to portray YES as riskier if people know there will be a second referendum.
      Best wishes


      • I agree that it was not your assumption and that is is an assumption that “yes” will try to assert. I was expanding upon your theme which seems to contradict your earlier pessimism about the asymmetry of the debate where “no” can be pushed onto the unwinnable terrain of a detailed exit plan. Using a sense of balance is well understood and would not be too hard to communicate – the “if we have to answer this question then the other side does too” pushes “yes” into equally unwinnable complexity.

        Unless of course they simply come back with “we want a federal structure with a common treasury and executive and the effective end of the nation state” which may well do part of your job for you. No doubt there are many in the European parliament who would leap at the chance to make such a case.


  4. Very good article,and you should always be mindful of the ineluctable implosion of the Euro followed by the the wholesale collapse of the rebarbative and corrupt European Union.


  5. In the spirit of open discussion a long response.

    The idea of inverting the Risk of the referendum is to my mind the best strategy. A slogan of ‘Don’t Risk it – Just say No!’ would be very powerful and give the ground troops (of which l am one) and TV studio warriors something very simple to argue, and as you said we could get people who want to leave, plus those who just want a better deal. If the Eurozone is still a mess (very likely), framing this as a 40 year question would be unanswerable.

    Practically it would mean a whole new treaty process would begin after the French and German elections, and even if we couldn’t remake Europe, but we could claw REAL powers back that put us ON THE PATH to exit; eg getting Fisheries and Justice would make it incredibly difficult for a future Government to give them away again, would break the flow of powers to Brussels, and it may blunt some of the Scots Nats arguments North of the Border as they wouldn’t have a wider Union in which to reside.

    Which links in to building a broader movement of ‘Out’, which seems a very viable possibility for 2020. There are Tories like Damian Green and Anna Souby who have no business holding the seats they do, and we would be much better served having an Ideologically pure but broad based party, similar to the Scot Nats. A clear destination, or guiding star, is Viagra for a political movement, and we could then finally centralise political control and decision making instead of imitating the hard left and having to cope with seven or so competing different organisations.

    But this is a high risk strategy. Firstly we can’t win without a leader. Sajid Javid would be perfect if he is indeed a skeptic, but he doesn’t strike me as someone willing to run against DC and GO, or even BJ. And secondly the risk for the Right of the breakup of the Tory party is so high, as the Euro Fanatics would be so bitter they would rather the Left won than allow the skeptics in, and if the Left won they would be MORE Euro Fanatical and would try and give European Citizens the Right to Vote.

    If we were to split we would need to WIN in 2020, not just run it close.

    I’ve always felt that this whole disaster of the UK in the EU began with Elitist Tories who didn’t understand the country. Ted Heath and his friends liquidated the Scottish Unionist Party thereby depriving the Scots of their unique identity within British Political life, and put us on a path which would inexorably lead to the breakup of the British Union beneath a European one.

    So to fight this we need it’s antithesis: a UNIONIST movement, with separate parties in Wales and in Scotland, founded specifically to save the Union from disintegrating within the EU. Maybe then we can stitch together enough interest groups to win a majority, and thus save us from this European Hell.


  6. There is the foundation of an exit plan – it is FleXcit written by Richard North. I do not think we can have no plan as that will just feed the status quo (“the No side have no plan”). If there is a No vote then the United Kingdom should not remain a member of the EU. This does not mean an exit but any Government that tried to re-run the referendum to get the right result might get a very nasty electoral shock – look at what happened at Winchester when the court ordered that election to be re-run in 1997.


  7. I agree with your assertion that most voters do not understand the complexity of the EU and would be completely lost trying to go through the various detailed options. The OUT campaign has to convince voters that they can ignore the fears that the IN campaign will use to frighten them to stay in. It will be in the live debates that, I assume, will take place between the leading protagonists on both sides that the IN side will taunt the OUT side that they “have no plan for what will follow an OUT victory”, to which they could reply, “you can have no idea what is going to happen to the EU and what new laws Brussels will commit us to”.

    We can easily demonstrate that many nations outside the EU have a sound trading relationship with it, so there are several models which we can use as a starting point. I agree with your point that it will be up to the UK negotiating team to deal with the detailed negotiations. We should not, in my opinion, get bogged down in hundreds of pages of detail. Thank goodness we are not in the Euro – that would have lead to the same scenario that the SNP floundered on.
    In the end people will vote on a gut feeling. We need leaders who can inspire people with great debating skills and who can articulate a vision. This is still very much a televisual age. Sure, the internet will play a vital part in motivating activists, but mass media is where it will be decided, in my opinion.


  8. History might be written by the winner, but would a victorious ‘No’ campaign really be in a position to dictate the government’s agenda with an exit plan?

    Cameron has decided to stake his entire reputation on holding what he’s always called a referendum to stay in or leave the EU (though not necessarily staked his entire reputation on winning it). Given how the Syria vote played out – or how the election nearly worked out, rehearsing his resignation speech an hour before polls closed – I could see him insisting that ‘No’ would be a final decision to leave the EU, regardless of his own firmly held beliefs or what the victorious side claims.

    The government maintaining this high-risk single referendum strategy would, for the reasons you’ve outlined, also be tactically advantageous for ‘Yes’. If we adopt this two-ref approach and the uber-pundit digs his heels in there is a danger we could spend this entire campaign calling for another referendum. Given a referendum is the main thing that the Out side have been calling for over the past decade we could wind up looking like some kind of constitutional cult obsessed with dragging punters out to polling stations for pointless votes.


    • Another thought on this. We have already seen Eurofanatics in the Labour Party attack the referendum as creating ‘years of uncertainty’. (I think a similar line was used when Alex Salmond decided the Scottish referendum should be timed to coincide with the anniversary of Bannockburn, rather than at the earliest convenient moment.) The advance promise that this referendum wouldn’t end the matter would afford ‘Yes’ opportunity to regurgitate that line. Mind you, given how ineffective the attack line has been for Labour, it might be worth letting ‘Yes’ waste their time with it.


  9. Be careful with Boris. He could call for a ‘No’, take a prominent position in the campaign and then miraculously change his mind. Even is he did stay and maybe lead us, it would give him incredible power in dictating an acceptable deal for the second referendum, as if he endorsed the second deal after leading the first ‘No’ Campaign it would be very difficult to defeat / argue against him.

    We would have to be clear that a ‘No’ meant invoking article 50, and that a new deal would include the things that matter (Signing Trade deals, Full control of borders, no jurisdiction of the ECJ over UK), and would be a deal WITH the EU, not a deal being PART of the EU.

    A lot of this is internal Conservative party stuff as well. He’s trying to get the activists on side in his battle against Osborne.


  10. I had blythly assumed the process on ‘no’ vote would be included in the Referendum bill, such that government would have two weeks to notify the EU Council of its intention to withdraw for exit under Article 50. At which point Article 50 takes over the process – the government and the EU have two years to negotiate a new relationship/treaty – or all EU treaties no longer apply. Given I wouldn’t trust Cameron, the policital establishment, or the EU to engineer some stitch up without any checks or balances – I think a referendum on this agreement makes complete sense. I would further suggest, provision and timing of this is included in the referendum bill, so electorate have a clear idea of the process ahead and relative risks. This referendum should be complete and the new relationship enacted before the next election in 2020.

    1. Any Member State may decide to withdraw from the Union in accordance with its own constitutional requirements.

    2. A Member State which decides to withdraw shall notify the European Council of its intention. In the light of the guidelines provided by the European Council, the Union shall negotiate and conclude an agreement with that State, setting out the arrangements for its withdrawal, taking account of the framework for its future relationship with the Union. That agreement shall be negotiated in accordance with Article 218(3) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. It shall be concluded on behalf of the Union by the Council, acting by a qualified majority, after obtaining the consent of the European Parliament.

    3. The Treaties shall cease to apply to the State in question from the date of entry into force of the withdrawal agreement or, failing that, two years after the notification referred to in paragraph 2, unless the European Council, in agreement with the Member State concerned, unanimously decides to extend this period.

    4. For the purposes of paragraphs 2 and 3, the member of the European Council or of the Council representing the withdrawing Member State shall not participate in the discussions of the European Council or Council or in decisions concerning it.

    A qualified majority shall be defined in accordance with Article 238(3)(b) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union.

    5. If a State which has withdrawn from the Union asks to rejoin, its request shall be subject to the procedure referred to in Article 49.


  11. This ‘two referendums’ strategy strikes me, frankly, as pretty desperate and pathetic. You’re clear that the reason for it is because you’re worried that not enough people will vote No without the security of a second referendum being needed to confirm a decision to leave. But a second referendum is not needed. Let’s be clear about this: if the public vote No in the referendum, that is a decision to leave, on whatever terms that can be negotiated. The departure plan would need to be agreed, but there must *be* a departure, or the referendum would be meaningless.

    You seem to think that a No vote will instead be an opportunity to push the other EU members to grant us better terms on which to stay in, but there is no reason to think they would do that. The logical time for renegotiation of our membership is before the vote, not after; if better terms of membership cannot be agreed before the vote, they won’t be agreed after.

    Just wait and see what happens with Greece’s referendum next week. The government there thinks that if the people vote to reject the EU’s austerity plans, they will be forced to offer new ones. But it won’t happen that way: if the people vote no, Greece will be forced out of the euro. There is no scope for any further negotiation, and so it will be with us.

    I will be voting Yes, as I think on balance the EU as it is is worth remaining a member of, for all its many flaws. But if the public vote No, that decision must be respected, rather than trying to fob them off with a second referendum to get them to change their minds. That would show the very contempt for democracy which the EU itself has frequently shown


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  22. Jesus Christ, you wrote the future of the country on the back of a fag packet and got people to buy it. Only they didn’t want your version, they wanted the psycho version.


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