Brexit: finding procedural consensus and ranked-choice referenda

Given the likelihood of May’s defeat this week, how does Brexit proceed? In the frenzied state of parliamentary gridlock, as the Brexit deadline becomes ominously close, legislators seem to lack any coherent plan of how to resolve the Brexit stalemate.

In this article, I argue that if May’s deal fails, MPs’ first job should be to form consensus on the procedure for agreeing a majority position in the House of Commons. This step has to be taken before they consider renegotiating with the EU. I suggest that a combination of internal parliamentary votes and a ranked-choice referendum can lead to a Brexit parliament reaching a firm, and backable, negotiating position.

Going back to the EU without a clear indication of a majority in the house is pointless. The EU will not expend energy on a new round of negotiations without any prospect of it passing in the UK Parliament first. As May’s efforts have shown, negotiating without clear domestic support is fruitless.

Implications of May’s deal failing

So, what are the likely ramifications of May’s deal being rejected next week, and how does this affect what MP’s should do? First, let’s assume May’s deal fails. While the odds seem to be subtly shifting, the Government faces a mammoth task to pass its deal.

Second, it seems very likely in that case that Article 50 will be extended - as MPs on all sides are starting to concede. The one visible majority in the House of Commons is that against a No Deal exit. There simply is not enough time to pass the legislation, let alone build the support, for a substantively new deal that will pass muster both at home and abroad in the EU 27.

Third, I think it improbable that a new election will be held. This point is certainly up for debate, but I think political forces do not favour Corbyn’s most-desired outcome. Since party labels do not match the dominant axis of conflict in British politics, and any (small) changes to parliamentary algebra will not alter the entrenched positions of significant groups within the major parties. Moderate Conservative MPs have little reason or incentive to back a Labour no-confidence vote.

In policy terms, too, a new election contested on party lines is unlikely to provide any real indication of what the majority preference for Brexit is (Norway, May’s deal, No Deal, Remain). A second election simply does not seem likely to resolve the tensions that have led to the current stalemate.

A procedural way forward

So, if an election is unlikely and would not change things even if it did occur, what might? As MPs/spectators have pointed out for months, in a divided House the best way forward is to field a series of motions assessing what sort of deal has any semblance of support in the chamber. This is what was promised in the run up to May’s deal but did not materialise, and may or may not occur in the aftermath of the deal’s probable defeat next week.

A series of exploratory motions may reveal a policy plan that has a majority of support in the house. If so, the Government should go back to the negotiating table with EU on the basis of that motion.

But the likelihood is that there is no one deal that reaches a majority threshold – hence why the current stalemate is so entrenched. It is not simply the case that MP’s are waiting for Scarlet Johansson to turn up, but that some MP’s are waiting for Johansson while others are waiting for Liam Hemsworth, and yet others for Benedict Cumberbatch. If this is the case, then Parliament will need a nudge to override its own divided preferences.

If no policy secures a majority in the House, the next step has to be a referendum - but not simply of the in-out variety. Instead, Parliament could shortlist the top two chosen within Parliament and pose these directly to the public alongside a remain option. And unlike conventional referendums, this referendum should operate on a ranked-choice basis where voters order their preferences for the three options. The least-chosen option then has its second preferences reallocated to the other two - at which point, one of these two remaining policies will have a majority of support. Moreover, MPs should pass legislation that binds them to enact the majority will of this vote.

This rank-ordering solves two problems. First, it updates our beliefs about whether a majority support Brexit or not - namely whether or not Remain secure 50% or more of the vote. Second, if a majority do favour Brexit, then it gives MPs the nudge over which type of Brexit to pursue. Remainers in this situation also get a say over what type of Brexit they prefer.

With a clearer mandate over a specific type of deal, Parliament and the Government can return to the EU with a renewed and more coherent bargaining position with which to engage in a second round of negotiations. But crucially, for this set of guidelines to work, Parliament must agree and pass the terms by which a domestic consensus is to be reached.

Pushing past party labels

Of course, this suggestion is all moot if a majority of MPs in the House of Commons do not agree to such a procedure. While there have been some signs of cross-party cooperation, it remains very unclear whether a Dominic Grieves – Chuka Umunna coalition, for instance, would have sufficient parliamentary backing. Jeremy Corbyn will not want to cede control to the moderate faction of the party, and likewise the ERG will undoubtedly be unhappy with this way forward.

More broadly, parties matter greatly to MPs, both in terms of future electoral prospects and their advancement within Government. Even when inter-party divisions do not align with the main dimension of political conflict, as is currently the case, the costs of rebelling against one’s party can be exorbitant. The emotional speeches of Grieves, Letwin and Soames make it clear that their rare rebellions are exactly that - rare. Any procedural cartel that forms to break the deadlock along the lines I have suggested would face colossal risks in forming.

What British politics really needs is some shock that forces the hand of the various groups within Parliament and recrystallises the structure of contestation to match the structure of the Brexit conflict itself. That shock could be exogenous to the actors in the House of Commons, but it is difficult to imagine what that would manifest as. But such a shock could also come in the form of extraordinary brave members who are willing to sacrifice their party allegiances for a stab at resolving the current stalemate. A caretaker coalition of state-minded MPs that push past party labels is possible, but it requires such a lurch from the status quo that it demands immense guile to be put into action.

TL;DR

All this is to say that what is needed to advance the Brexit issue is procedural clarity, that binds MPs to a path that all can support – before any substantive debate over policy content is made. A combination of parliamentary votes and a ranked-choice referenda will give Parliament a much clearer mandate with which to renegotiate a realistic, and supportable, deal with the EU. But the hurdles required to even get to procedural agreement are hugely difficult and uncertain. The outstanding question is whether a brave cadre of politicians is willing to step up and push past party ties to resolve the current incoherence of Brexit deliberations.