Tim Farron and the Lib-Dem Position on Exit

by George Hatjoullis

First, a vested interest statement.I rejoined the Lib-Dems immediately after the referendum. I had allowed my membership to lapse because I had become disillusioned with party politics and no longer had any enthusiasm for the process. I still feel this way but I felt some gesture of defiance was due after the referendum and the Lib-Dems deserve a little money for at least standing for the principles that I support. I therefore follow the Lib-Dem agenda closely even if I am otherwise inactive.

The public position of Tim Farron makes no sense to me. He wants a second referendum on the terms of exit (can we stop using Brexit now). I am unclear how this can come about. The next junction on my exit probability tree is the Supreme Court appeal ruling. I must assume, in the absence of any other information, that this ruling hinges on whether invocation of article 50 is deemed irrevocable or not.

If it is deemed irrevocable parliament has a say on if and when A50 is invoked. The decision is thus to invoke or not to invoke. The terms of exit are irrelevant because either we cannot get to that point and stay in or we invoke and are sure to leave (irrevocable) so what would a referendum achieve? The EU has made clear there will be no negotiations until A50 is invoked. The terms of any deal after invocation are not in the power of the government. The power is in the hands of the EU. It is in this scenario that parliament has some leverage yet apart from blocking exit, it can do nothing. It cannot have a referendum on the terms after A50 is invoked because the UK would already be out and the referendum would confer no actionable leverage. If we invoke an irrevocable A50 and don’t like the terms what do we do Tim?

If A50 is deemed reversible then the Supreme Court will overturn the High Court ruling and the government will be able to invoke A50 by Royal Prerogative. Parliament will not be asked so it has no leverage. The proposed second referendum now makes some sense because A50 is reversible and if we do not like the terms we can reject them, go back to the negotiation table or reject exit. Except that the EU has some say and it is on its interpretation of the A50 that the EU will act. What if the EU chooses to be difficult and not allow renegotiation and insists the UK exits on the terms on offer? What exactly can the UK do and what purpose does a second referendum serve in this context other than to confirm the UK has shot itself in the foot and we all wish it had not. Moreover, how is a second referendum to be achieved? At what juncture can parliament force a second referendum in this scenario?

It seems to me that all the posturing is just that, posturing. The only way parliament can affect the process is through a general election. If the anti-exit groups can muster a majority of one and force a vote of no confidence in the government. This would require Tory rebels so is not very likely. Two votes of no confidence  would allow a general election. The general election would be a second referendum and one in which the acceptable terms of exit could be made explicit by the ‘people’ to their parliamentary representatives. It still begs the question of what terms are available as this is up to the EU but at least parliament would be back in the decision process. The UK is a representative democracy and to move to a constitutional change based on a referendum that was meant to advise parliament seems to me to usurp this representative democracy. Another referendum does not restore the authority of parliament but rather undermines it further. Only an early general election restores the authority of parliament. So while I understand and support Tim Farron’s objectives I cannot see how this approach can achieve these objectives.