Anyone who genuinely values democracy should stay away from today’s “People’s Vote” march

Anyone who genuinely values democracy should stay away from today’s “People’s Vote” march

The “People’s March” for a “People’s Vote” is on today. But I’m not going to be there and, I’d suggest, nor should anyone else who genuinely values democracy.

Why? Well, a second poll which reversed the first wouldn’t solve the problem or settle the issue. The UK would have voted twice and the result would be a 1-1 draw. The calls for a third, ‘best of three’ tiebreaker referendum would start immediately, and we’d be condemned to a ‘neverendum’ where the question, and the uncertainty, would stop businesses investing and divide the country indefinitely.

Even worse, a second referendum with three choices (Leave with whatever deal is agreed; Leave with a bare-bones World Trade Organisation deal; or Remain) wouldn’t get us out of Brexit purdah either. In a three-way poll, it’s very unlikely any one of the three options would win more than 50% of the vote. But if – when – they didn’t, the result would be compared to the 52% majority in the first referendum – and would inevitably be weaker.

People are already fed up with endless Brexit-this and Brexit-that: you can’t turn on the TV or radio without getting an earful. The idea of condemning families, communities and nations to years and years more wrangling is, to put it politely, unlikely to fill voters with joy or glee. They want it over and done with before everyone’s eyeballs start to bleed with the pain.

There’s a pretty big practical problem too. I was one of the Ministers who took the first EU Referendum Act through Parliament, to set everything up for the original vote. Even with a substantial Government majority and a manifesto promise behind us, it was hard going.

Holding a second referendum would need another, full-scale Act of Parliament before any campaigns could start or polling stations could be booked. In a hung Parliament, and with neither the Labour or Conservative election manifestos breathing a word about a second vote, but both promising to deliver Brexit, the chances of passing a full-scale Act in time are somewhere between nil and zero.

So authorising a second vote in time looks impossible. But even if you could set it up in time, no second referendum campaign could start until there was a firm deal to vote on either. We can’t ask people to vote until it’s clear what the choices are.

That could take weeks or months more. Who ever heard of an EU summit finishing before midnight on the final day? And why would a negotiation as wide-ranging and complex as this one break that mould? The timetable is already starting to slip, and we shouldn’t be surprised if the negotiators are sent back to the table multiple times for tweaks and improvements in dozens of areas, before any final handshake is done. It would be ridiculous to ask people to vote again until they know what they’re being asked.

But what if all these (probably impossibly high) hurdles could be cleared? What if the marchers got their way and a second vote somehow, miraculously happened? Today’s marchers could be in for a shock.

The opinion polls which are supposed to show a second referendum would overturn the first look pretty flaky. Because the campaign wouldn’t be about whether people feel we should Leave or Remain in the EU if they’re asked the original referendum question again in the abstract. It would be whether they think we should Leave or Remain in practice, now that the first referendum has been held. And a hefty proportion of former Remain voters don’t think the referendum result should be reversed or ignored. I’m one of them; having voted Remain in the first poll, I would feel honour-bound to vote Leave next time. And many others feel the same, if those same opinion polls are to be believed.

Even worse, there’s a risk of a backlash from voters who feel they’ve already been asked the question once, and resent being asked if they’re really sure about it: the feeling that our democracy has been nobbled by a metropolitan elite who think the people were too stupid or deluded to be trusted with such an important decision, and will surely come to their senses if their betters decide to re-run the poll a second time.

Put these two forces together, and the chances are that a second vote wouldn’t reverse the result. In fact, it could easily increase the majority for Leave rather than reduce it. But whatever the result, the damage to our democracy of quibbling about not just a referendum, but then a General Election where both major parties promised to honour the result, would be profound. And that, at a time when politicians are already mistrusted, is something no country can afford.