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Why a general election is the only way out of this Brexit mess

With May’s deal looking doomed and no deal a hoax, a second referendum would be likely to be seen as a political failure

With every passing day, the likelihood of the government winning the meaningful vote on Theresa May’s dealdiminishes. There has been considerable chatter in Westminster about the idea that if the government loses the vote the first time, it might attempt to pass it a second time. This scenario is only plausible if the vote is a close-run thing. But if, as seems likely, the government loses by a wide margin, May’s deal will be definitively dead. So what happens then?

The options are narrowing. As the Bank of England confirmed this week, “no deal” is a political hoax. It would hurt the economy more deeply than the financial crash that occurred just a decade ago: house prices would plummet, sterling would tumble and inflation would soar. No responsible politician – certainly not this prime minister – would inflict such needless harm and suffering on their citizens. It is inconceivable that parliament would reject May’s deal in December and spend four months watching and waiting for catastrophe to occur. With the country facing the possibility of food and medicine shortages, there may well be civil unrest.

So this takes us to plan B. It is clear that the EU will not renegotiate the withdrawal agreement with this government: it is pure fantasy to imagine that the union would concede its most important negotiating objective of ensuring no border on the island of Ireland. Any renegotiation would be limited to the political declaration and have to be in just one direction: towards a closer economic relationship, with more rights alongside more obligations. As a result, there is increasing talk of the UK following the “Norway model” of participation in the single market through the European Economic Area along with a customs union, known in the jargon as “EEA+” (although the prime minister has repeatedly rejected this).

The problem is that there is no mandate for this option. Staying in the EU but without a say was not offered in the 2016 referendum, and would satisfy neither leavers nor remainers. Such an arrangement would be inherently politically unstable: it would be democratically intolerable to be subject to EU rules with no say over them and no ability to say no. The risk is that the UK would crash out of the EEA in the 2020s and destabilise the union, with Scotland in particular seeking independence as a route to full EU membership.

Moreover, given the enormous implementation loophole – EEA states are required to adopt single market regulations but there is no mechanism to ensure they do so – the EU is unlikely to accept the UK in the EEA. Rather, it is likely that they would offer a similar model to Norway but with even stricter terms, making it unappealing to more moderate leave supporters. And with the political declaration accompanying the withdrawal agreement lacking legal force (meaning that it could be sabotaged by the Brexit ultras during the transition), it is unlikely to command a majority in parliament.

Second, it is not clear that a referendum can solve a parliamentary problem. If May’s deal was backed in a referendum, would the DUP be prepared to vote for it despite the prospect of a border in the Irish sea? And if no deal won in a referendum, would MPs be prepared to vote for it knowing the seriousness of the consequences? It is not the simple way out that some pretend it to be.

That’s why a general election is the more appropriate solution to a parliamentary problem. While the UK does not have a written constitution, it does have some clear constitutional principles. If a government cannot govern, then either a new government must be formed from the existing members, or fresh elections must be held. The Fixed-term Parliaments Act is an impediment, but not an absolute restriction. A general election would be more constitutionally appropriate and allow for a more nuanced set of options than the binary choice presented in a referendum. Different parties could set out their objectives and what they would do under different scenarios, allowing the public to have a more meaningful say.

 Tom Kibasi is director of the Institute for Public Policy Research

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