Not even May knows what Brexit means

A People’s Vote on Brexit is a democratic imperative

Source: Wikimedia Commons

It has been a tough few weeks for Theresa May. This is by no means unusual for the PM, but the Salzburg summit last month was particularly bruising. May had already been walking a domestic tightrope with her Chequers plan, but she has now been effectively pushed off by Donald Tusk’s blunt statement that it “will not work.”

May’s conflict with the EU over Chequers is essentially one of red lines. Under the plan, Britain would opt out of freedom of movement yet maintain free movement of goods, even though the EU’s Chief Brexit Negotiator Michel Barnier has repeatedly shunned such cherry-picking. Yet May claims that Chequers is the only possible way to satisfy her two key conditions, that “anything which fails to respect the referendum or which effectively divides our country in two” would be unacceptable.

This is not an argument based on the supposed merits of the plan itself, but an attempt to give Chequers a mandate by linking it to the referendum result. Crucially, it is in exactly these terms that others have sought to derail it. Of course, ever since the resignations of Boris Johnson, Steve Baker, and David Davis, it has been evident that many Brexiteers oppose Chequers. But rather than argue for their specific Brexit visions on the basis of their merits, these Brexiteers often simply rely on that familiar, seemingly catchall phrase: that only their ideas respect the referendum result.

Brexiteers of course know how disingenuous they are when they claim that only they have correctly interpreted the referendum result. Yet this type of argument, which relieves them of the need to argue about the specific advantages and drawbacks of their individual plans for Brexit, is simply too attractive for them to resist.

This helps to highlight a contradiction among Brexiteers. Their infighting is an obvious sign of their unwillingness to compromise for a united Brexit plan, thus shattering the myth of a unified Leave bloc. Whenever Leavers claim that their particular Brexit vision is what voters really wanted in 2016, it becomes clearer that none of them have a mandate at all.

Any Leave mandate rests on the dubious claim that 51.9% of voters were broadly in agreement with a specific Brexit vision. With that disproved, the mandate vanishes. The Chequers disagreements are hardly the first to have exposed this, but they have done so very explicitly. It is unsurprising, then, that we now increasingly hear calls for a ‘People’s Vote’.

Only a People’s Vote would remove the key failing of the original referendum in 2016: a binary vote on this complex issue. The infighting over Chequers once again displays how disingenuous it is to group all Leavers together. They are not one bloc and should not be treated as one.

There are many possible relationships with the EU. Some Leave voters may have wanted to maintain European Economic Area membership (like Iceland, Liechtenstein, and Norway). Perhaps some wanted European Free Trade Area but not EEA membership (like Switzerland), or perhaps exclusively customs union membership (like Turkey). Maybe some backed ‘Canada-plus’. Many likely supported a no deal Brexit. Of course, many may have had little idea about these distinctions – but the referendum result cannot tell us this.

All the above forms of leaving are starkly different. Some Leave voters were much closer to a Remain position than to hard Brexiteers, with whom the binary vote forced them to group themselves. When considered on a spectrum of possible relationships with the EU, there is not a simple choice between Remain and Leave, but between Remain and many different relationships which have previously been unhelpfully grouped together.

A people’s vote between remain and several different leave categories would resolve this, finally displaying the true attitudes of the British people. Brexiteers’ responses to Chequers play on ‘respecting the referendum result’, but these claims are disingenuous. Anybody claiming to know what ‘the people’ want or wanted in 2016 is either aware of their own mendacity or guilty of incredible conceit. Had the referendum been more reasonably conducted with several categories, it is probable that there would not have been a 51.9% bloc for one Leave option, hence leaving remain with the largest share of the vote.

But one cannot second-guess the electorate; some Remain voters might even have been tempted by EEA membership but were put off by a straight ‘Leave’ vote. Only a people’s vote will stop Brexiteers claiming a false mandate. It is the only way to prevent them betraying the British public.


  1. I know what Brexit is.

    It’s leaving the EU.

    There’s an associated item, though, which is a leaving arrangement, which is not the same.

  2. “I know what Brexit is. It’s leaving the EU.”

    And what does *that* mean? Turkey is not in the EU but is in a Customs Union (and there can be many flavours of this). Norway is not in the EU but is the Single Market and Schengen. Switzerland is sort of in the Single Market via a set of 120 treaties with the EU. There are 31 different types of arrangement for such as Greenland, the Canary Islands, the Aland Islands, the Isle of Man, UN Buffer zones, Akrotiri in Cyprus and so on and so on.

    Which of these ‘out of the EU’ arrangements were mentioned on the referendum paper? I certainly do not remember Treeza’s ‘facilitated customs arrangement’ (Chequers) being on there…

    • Rightly so. Only that Britain is not actually heading towards Chequers. It’s heading towards no-deal or, most likely, a last-minute rescission of article 50. ‘Brexit? No!! We were just kidding!’


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