Theresa May has made a clear statement regarding both the success of her Brexit plan, and her leadership – two things that are becoming increasingly intertwined.
In an interview for the BBCs Panorama program with Nick Robinson, the PM offered a binary choice – her plan or no plan and said that focus should be one the success of Brexit, not her leadership.
This is one is a series of ultimatums the government has made, and fits a pattern of reducing complex grey questions, with degrees of opinion, into black and white conclusive statements.
This binary way of presenting and answering an issue or making a decision is fast becoming the standard in the Brexit negotiations. First in or out? Now May’s way or no way, and possibly May or Boris?
However, caution must be observed.
Whilst presenting such clear and well-defined choices may make it easier for the electorate to choose, and in theory should offer a conclusive decision, this is not a good enough way to deal with complex negotiations.
Primarily, it did not offer a conclusive outcome. Whilst the Leave side may claim a majority of 51.9%, it was in no way conclusive. A Union ballot for instance would require a minimum of 66% either way for action to be taken, and indeed have been held a week later, it would have returned a slim Remain majority.
Secondly, whilst there was a majority for Leave – it was to do just that – trigger Article 50 and leave the EU. It was not a decision outlining the future UK-EU trade model nor was it a vote for the end of the Good Friday Agreement. In reality, the choice over which model of Brexit, over how the UK will continues to trade with our continental counterparts, or over the question of Northern Ireland’s border is much less clear cut. There are multiple ways of dealing with these issues, none of which were nor can be dealt with adequately under a simple ‘in out’ referendum. Going forward, questions need to be asked in relation to the use of referendums in our democracy. A referendum is after all a form of Direct Participation, yet by actively supporting or merely voting for a political party, the electorate willingly defers decision making to elected representative (even if their preferred party or candidate does not win). As such, there is an argument for banning disruptive referendums, but this relies on elected politicians staying in tune with popular public opinion.
However, that does not avoid the inevitable calls from across the political spectrum for a second referendum, a vote on the final deal achieved, or simply a General Election. If the referendum was ran again, there is considerable argument against a simple ‘in out’ vote, and with talk turning to the possibility of a second referendum – or a People’s Vote – Senior politicians on both sides of the house want to see a ballot paper reflective of the current options – ‘hard, soft, remain’ for short.
Whats more, it can be suggested that had the original referendum offered choices such as ‘hard Brexit’ and ‘Soft Brexit’ of ‘Norway or Canada style’, which not been so clear cut, the result may have been very different, and whilst there may have been more options on the ballot paper – such as a ‘soft Brexit’, ‘Hard Brexit’ or ‘Norway style’ etc. this may have actually given more clarity to the Government in the weeks and months after the initial vote.
The referendum presented the issue over EU membership as a black and white matter. However, this was an over-simplistic way of dealing with an issue as complex and historic as the British attitudes to the EU. Brexit is in comparison firmly grey and muddled. For that reason, Mrs May’s bold and clear claim that it is her way or the highway does not clear up any confusion, but in fact further muddles the already confusing issues over trade and immigration, sovereignty and Northern Ireland, not because her plan is particularly complex, but because it continues to suppose that Brexit can be dealt with in a binary way. It cannot.