The built in checks and balances in the British Parliamentary system: second referendums, confidence votes, and elections
Our system has the built in checks and balances to prevent a Prime Minister no longer commanding the support of the House of Commons or one held hostage to party politics or both from pursuing a course which is not in the interests of the country.
Should the Prime Minister after losing a vote on her withdrawal deal not resign but seek to implement either a no deal Brexit or even a referendum where the only two options would be no deal or her deal then Parliamentary procedure can be used to stop her.
Parliamentary MPs could force a confidence vote if she does not resign or if she proposes to the House of Commons that she will proceed with a no deal Brexit.
The government losing such a vote could result in the government falling but not necessarily in general elections. This was the case even before the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act.
Should she proceed to change her course and and propose a referendum as a result of her losing the vote on the withdrawal deal, Parliament can amend the format chosen by the Prime Minister should she only put forward a choice between her deal and a no deal Brexit.
There is no specific need for an election and nor is it necessary for the government to necessarily fall in order to achieve the desired referendum question.
A possible alternative referendum format would be one with three options on the ballot - May’s Deal, Leave With No Deal, and Remain.
In order for the Leave With No Deal option to win however, it would require 50% +1 while the other two options would compete under the first past the post system. So if Leave outright did not receive a majority of the votes cast then which ever option between Remain and May’s Deal got the most votes would win.
The reasoning behind this hybrid referendum format which would require No Deal to receive 50% +1 to win is that leaving with no deal or even a negotiated no deal would cause the greatest uncertainty and disruption to the economy and people’s lives. Most countries require more than 50% +1 when undertaking such changes to a country’s economic or legal regime or altering the rights attached to citizenship.
Some are questioning why leave with no deal should even be on the ballot given that the majority of Parliamentarians are now repudiating it as a plausible option given the lack of clarity and amount of unknowns that the electorate would be asked to vote for.
In other words, leave no deal is not viable enough to offer it as a choice to the people and hence cannot be one of the second referendum’s choices.
This is the wrong approach and a mischaracterisation of the issues for two reasons.
Leave no deal has enough MPs and people believing in it that they can make it seem a viable alternative in the media. It can take on a life of its own where for generations afterwards in a manner which will become folklore in British politics a myth will be repeated that another option was possible if only they and the 2016 referendum had not been betrayed.
Instead having the option on the ballot, would put the onus on hard Brexit supporters such as Jacob Rees-Moog, Boris Johnson, and David Davis to makes the case for this option as opposed to sitting on the sidelines and sniping during and after a second referendum that their perceived feasible option was never on the table. Let them defend this option in public on its merits before the people and let the people judge it and vote for it if they want it.
Going forward it would limit the influence of these politicians not only on conservative politics but on the country’s politics because hard Brexiteers like Jacob Rees-Mogg would no longer be able to claim they had the support of a segment of the population on this option (those who have issues with the EU but are not espousing free trade deals with Singapore for the City as a solution) nor would the leave no deal option be able to be used as a fall back position in future discussions involving reforming the EU or for that matter anytime an issue arises involving the EU by those who not matter what, want the UK out of the EU. Instead, one would hope Westminster as a whole would be forced to distinguish between issues stemming from the EU and those stemming from either Downing Street or Parliament the latter of which served as a basis for a significant portion of the Leave vote in 2016.
It would also balance off the fact that May’s Deal would get an inherent bump-up (as it would in a second preference vote format) by hard core Leavers regardless of the contents of her deal while many a Remainer’s desired option would not be on the ballot, that, of a reformed EU where genuine good faith negotiations with the EU were undertaken over a period of time (not the three month period that David Cameron thought was enough to achieve reform).