A Second Brexit Referendum Doesn't Seem Likely

The confusing sovereignty paradox behind the UK's Article 50 ruling.

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Jan 25 2017, 3:46pm

Top image: Satirical artist Kaya Mar with one of his paintings outside the Supreme Court. Picture by Victoria Jones PA Wire/PA Images

This post originally appeared on VICE UK.

Archduke of Remoania Nick Clegg was on the radio yesterday morning trying to sell the idea that "the people will have to sign off" on any Brexit deal.

The idea of "sign-off" is a cheery little way to sell his second referendum policy—the factory foreman of UK PLC inking the dotted line on his clipboard at the end of his shift. It's cute; it's visual. But it's definitely not going to work like that now, and his new hero Gina Miller (the figurehead of the legal fight for an Article 50 vote) is entirely to blame.

Paradoxically, by pointing out that sovereignty rests with Parliament, she closed the door to the people "signing off" any Brexit deal. The #2ndref team should be crying into their beer, not toasting this woman as though she'll soon be embossed on £5 notes.

Parliament is a balancing mechanism between two tyrannies. We don't rule by a government just whipping out Royal Prerogative whenever they feel like it—as the Supreme Court voted 8–3 to affirm. But we also don't rule by mob—the tyranny of the majority is something everyone from Hobbes to Payne to Isaiah Berlin feared as much as the Divine Right of Kings. The People don't rule—they simply get to appoint people they think might be good at ruling.

But Parliament can, from time to time, throw one back to the People, treating them as a bit of a sounding board. Which is why the June 23 vote was technically "advisory" rather than "binding," which explains why Parliament needed to get involved the other side of it.

If Parliament hadn't been given a say, the stage would be ripe for the Lib Dems and maybe Labour to argue for chucking the question back to the People once any deal was done. But no longer. It's up to them now. And the logic of that scenario still favors the same ol' Brexit.

Confusingly, the breaking-news hyperventilation in our press has illustrated quite how full of mirages and odd diversions this process is. People who don't follow these things inch by inch could be forgiven for thinking they're going mad. Didn't we already have a "hugely important" vote in Parliament? Like, only in December? And now, another one?

The technicalities are endless. The December one was "to approve the timetable for Brexit," and seemed like a very big deal at the time. That one sailed through Parliament with Labour support—461 votes to 89. This time? Corbyn's statement yesterday afternoon left no room for ambiguity:

"Labour respects the result of the referendum and the will of the British people and will not frustrate the process for invoking Article 50."

So once again, we've got a milestone moment that, in effect, will change nothing, and there are a surprising number of these milestone moments still to come. It's bewildering, when you get down to it, how many different stamps it takes to fill out the democracy coupon book.

There's the vote on the timetable. Then the Triggering in the Commons, then the Triggering in the Lords, then both Houses get to vote again on any deal—though the government has signaled that this will be on a take-it-or-leave-it basis—then the EU Parliament has to give its own rubber stamp… but only after the governments of a full 27 different countries have passed any deal. If the "divorce" analogy still holds, then it's like a divorce if your ex-mother-in-law's hairdresser got to tie things up in litigation with her two cents on who gets custody of the Amazon Echo Dot.

The Commons, though, can't wreck this one without Corbyn performing the Charge of the Light Brigade on his own party—sending them off to certain death at the next election by defying the People. Parliament decides, but it also represents. It decided to hold a referendum. And now, each MP, beholden to their Leave-loving constituents, beleaguered by the Ukip threat, will have to decide how much to represent their views.

Of course, the People might have defied themselves with a #2ndRef on the deal (though Remain's patronizing buyers' regret hypothesis doesn't seem to be holding much water just now). But thanks to Gina, savior of good ol' parliamentary sovereignty, the chances that they'll ever get that opportunity have dwindled from slim to approaching nil.

Instead, at some point in 2019, if and when a deal is done, Parliament will be offered Hobson's Choice—Leave the EU or Really Really Leave the EU with Overnight WTO Taxes and Trucks Lined Up at Dover Customs Belching Diesel into the Channel Tunnel. Who knows which of those two options these deeply sovereign, profoundly independent souls will choose? Perhaps sovereignty and choice are not, as Miller and Clegg may like to reflect, the same thing. Sign offs may differ.

Follow Gavin Haynes on Twitter.