While a Final Say referendum is probably now inevitable, it begs some questions of its own. As the various other immediate options – the May deal, no deal, a general election – proceed to be successively rejected by the House of Commons, the referendum will emerge as the last resort. So the question of The Question will soon assume a central importance in British politics. It is itself fraught with presuppositions and prejudices of its own.

One option would be to reuse the question put in the 2016 referendum, with a simple “X” in a box for the voter’s preference:

Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?

Remain a member of the European Union

Leave the European Union

The assumption there – which could be placed in the question – is that “Leave” means the deal as agreed by the UK government and the EU (though not by parliament).

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Thus, a tweaked wording could be: 

Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union; or leave the European Union on the terms agreed with the EU in the UK-EU withdrawal agreement?

Remain a member of the European Union

Leave the European Union under the terms of the UK-EU withdrawal agreement

There are many other variants, such as asking the public to approve or not approve (Yes/No) the UK-EU withdrawal agreement.

The main problem with these options is obvious. How does Nigel Farage vote? Apart from throwaway remarks by some Leavers that they’d rather stay in the EU than agree to Theresa May’s “worst of all worlds” deal, there is the question of fairness to those who back a “third way” – the so-called “no deal” or, less pejoratively, “trade on World Trade Organisation terms”.

Is it too complicated to offer a three-way choice, where the voter is invited to rank their choice, if they wish, 1, 2 or 3? Or just 1, if they are thus inclined. The question then might run:

Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union, leave the European Union under the terms of the UK-EU withdrawal agreement, or Leave the European Union to under World Trade Organisation terms?

Please order your preferences as 1, 2 and 3; or, if you wish to vote for only one option, mark the box with an X or a 1. 

Remain a member of the European Union

Leave the European Union under the terms of the UK-EU withdrawal agreement

Leave the European Union under World Trade organisation terms

(Here, again, the hard Brexiteers split themselves into two camps – the WTO lobby and the “Super Canada” free trade gang. It is complicated. Realistically, the EU won’t let the UK have “Super Canada” because of the Irish border issue. So, arguably, there are just two real-world Brexit options – May Deal or WTO. And Remain.) 

A permutation of a three-way choice would be to offer successive ballots, where the top two choices form the first round going through for a final, final say, a couple of weeks apart. That, arguably, might split the “Leave” vote unfairly and prolong the debate unduly.

Of course another question now, by reverse analogy with 2016, is to define what “Remain” actually means.

In 2016, Brexit was whatever someone wanted it to be, Humpty Dumpty-style (“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less”). 

Now we know what Brexit is – Ms May’s deal (with hard Brexit another possible option). By contrast, what the UK and its electorate now would need to know is what “remaining” actually means. Do we keep the EU budget rebate? Do we get the European banking and medicines agencies to move back from Paris and Amsterdam? Are we going to be required to join the euro? Do we get the marginal concessions won by David Cameron in 2016? How do we know that Turkey won’t join the EU in, say, 2029? And so on.

There are other problems for the next referendum bill and the Electoral Commission to sort out – unfinished business from 2016. If there are to be three options, will there be three lead campaigns? How should we reform funding? How should we regulate the use of social media and personal data? How should we guard against foreign interference? Will there be another “official” booklet recommending HM government’s deal? How much public money should be spent on subsidising the campaigns?

Bored with Brexit as many are, the 2019 referendum might be quite a lively, vital and informed campaign – Ms May running the soft Brexit option; Boris Johnson heading up hard Brexit; Amber Rudd looking after Remain – blue-on-blue-on-blue warfare.

Finally, echoing the 2016 vote, there is a question of whether the referendum of April 2019 should be “binding”, overriding parliament formally, which the last referendum did not. This is anyway constitutionally problematic (under an unwritten constitution) and raises, again, huge questions about where “sovereignty” actually resides – with parliament or the people? What if various factions of MPs, and the public, defiantly refuse to accept the result, and claim it is some sort of establishment plot, Russian stitchup, or whatever? Then what?

The easy bit, in other words, will be to get the EU and parliament to agree to hold a referendum and extend the Article 50 deadline past 29 March, to provide time and space for the referendum bill and a spring referendum. 

The devil, as the old saying goes, is once again in the detail. Yet, once parliament manages to do its duty and coalesce around a people’s vote and Final Say as the only way forward, then there will, just as there was in 2015 and 2016, be a way to resolve the secondary questions about the Final Say vote.  

The general approach should be to offer the maximum choice of options, so that no one feels disenfranchised; the best possible level of consensus on the terms of the debate, spending limits and the question. It probably won’t end the arguments, the divisions and the recriminations; but without a Final Say, they will be much, much worse.

Britain may or may not need Brexit; it certainly needs closure.

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