- Two-vote scenario has drawn scorn from rival anti-EU camp
- Proposal would need senior Tory figure to challenge Cameron
Britain’s planned referendum on European Union membership has been blamed for dragging down sterling and souring investor sentiment. But for one of the groups agitating for a so-called Brexit, a single vote isn’t enough: It wants two.
Advocates of an exit from the EU face a lot of disadvantages: They don’t know when the vote will be, they have to persuade the public to back change, and they’re split over who should lead them. According to Dominic Cummings, campaign director of Vote Leave, a second referendum would remove a key objection for voters: an inability to describe how life outside the EU would look. Under his plan, a first referendum would simply authorize the U.K. to begin exit talks, and a second would let voters decide on the outcome of those discussions.
The biggest problem with this proposal is that Cummings is in no position to offer it. The question mandated by the law that provides for the referendum is “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?” Prime Minister David Cameron has ruled out a second plebiscite. So it’s only an option for Cummings if he can persuade a senior member of Cameron’s government to break ranks and make the case for a two-stage vote.
“What if one of the Conservative Party leadership candidates stands up and says: ‘Cameron has botched this’?” Cummings asked in an interview in his office overlooking Parliament in London. “What we need to do is have a serious negotiation with the EU where we end the supremacy of EU law, do a trade deal, adopt sensible rules on free movement, and then give the British people another say.”
In Cummings’s view, this would give a public that has its doubts about the EU a chance to “vote ‘Leave,’ and we get another bite of the cherry; no downside.”
The potential popularity of what Cummings calls a “free hit” is exactly why Cameron and Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, who are campaigning to keep Britain inside the EU, are so opposed to the idea. Polling on voting intentions for the referendum, which may come as early as June, has been inconclusive.
With uncertainty about the vote adding to other woes affecting the markets, the pound fell this week to its lowest level since 2009 and the FTSE 100 index of shares fell 20 percent from the record it reached last April.
“There’s no second vote,” Osborne told the BBC on Jan. 14. “This is the crucial decision of our lifetimes. Do we stay in the European Union, a reformed European Union, or do we leave?”
As long as Cameron and Osborne can keep the question framed in that way, they are likely to win, according to Matthew Goodwin, professor of politics at the University of Kent.
“The ‘Leave’ camp face a fundamental hurdle,” he said in an interview. “Not only are voters in general averse to risk, but undecided voters in this referendum break two-to-one in seeing Brexit as the risk. They comprise 15-20 percent of the electorate, and in a close race, they are likely to make the difference.”
An offer of a second vote might be tempting to voters. In the run-up to the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence, Cameron’s office feared Scottish National Party leader Alex Salmond was going to make a similar proposal, asking for authority to start secession talks rather than declaring full independence, in a bid to shift the momentum of the debate in his favor.
Although the first part of the mooted two-stage referendum would be sold as a vote that committed the U.K. to nothing, in reality, it would make it much easier for the exit side to win a second referendum, because the terms of that debate would then have shifted in their favor.
The idea isn’t supported by all those campaigning to leave. Arron Banks, co-chairman of a rival exit campaign, Leave.EU, called it “counterproductive” in an open letter on Jan. 18.
Then there is the problem of personnel.
“They need a heavyweight to back the ‘Out’ campaign and they don’t have one,” said Charles Grant, director of the Centre for European Reform in London.
For Cummings’s plan to work, the idea of a second referendum would have to be pitched by someone with a plausible chance of delivering it. As Cameron has ruled out such a move, whoever was making it would effectively be launching a bid to oust the prime minister and replace him. The list of possible candidates for that job is short: Osborne, who’s pinned his colors very closely to the Cameron mast, as well as Home Secretary Theresa May, London Mayor Boris Johnson and perhaps Business Secretary Sajid Javid, none of whom have yet come off the fence.
“Boris knows he’d be going too far out on a limb if he were to start taking the Cummings line,” Johnson’s biographer, Andrew Gimson, said in an interview. “It would be completely astonishing if he or any other considerable figure decided to run a rebellion at the moment. Of course, if the whole Cameron thing ran into trouble, Boris would be on hand.”