Tom Watson is wrong. We need an election first – and then a second referendum

Tom Kibasi
<span>Photograph: Jonathan Brady/PA</span>
Photograph: Jonathan Brady/PA

Anti-Brexit MPs, from the Tories’ Oliver Letwin to Labour deputy leader Tom Watson, have hit the airwaves arguing that the country should resolve Brexit before deciding on its next government.

However, this push for a second referendum ahead of a general election is doomed to failure. As the indicative votes process showed, there is no majority in this parliament for a second referendum – or indeed for any particular outcome. So demanding one before a general election is an act of political pique.

It is becoming hard to deny that those calling for a second referendum seem to be motivated less by keeping Britain in the European Union and more by keeping Jeremy Corbyn out of Downing Street.

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As the parties gear up for a November general election, the Liberal Democrats have hardened their anti-Brexit stance, announcing that the party would simply cancel Brexit by revoking article 50 if they win the election – which may seem like a cost-free promise for a party that stands little chance of forming the next government. At best, this strategy might boost the Lib Dems’ vote share at the cost of deep disenchantment from democratic politics; at worst, it could lead people to resort to non-democratic means, including violent street protest.

So Liberal Democrats calling for revocation are being just as cynical as Brexiters backing no deal. It is a profoundly irresponsible electoral calculation. It would also set a dangerous precedent – what if a future hard-right government said it would take Britain out the EU with no vote and no deal?

Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson
Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson: ‘Liberal Democrats calling for revocation are being just as cynical as Brexiters backing no deal.’ Photograph: Henry Nicholls/Reuters

Watson’s speech today – calling for Labour to be “unequivocally the party of remain” and arguing that only a referendum can “break the Brexit deadlock” – has turned the spotlight back on to the party’s position. Corbyn’s critics in the Labour party and beyond it have refused to take “yes” for an answer. Labour is now firmly committed to a second referendum, so the critics have turned to sneering at the idea that Labour would put a “credible leave option” on the ballot against remain.

However, a democratic referendum will require more than one choice. Brexit has become so divisive that the only way to resolve the impasse with legitimacy is to give the people the final say in a referendum. For that to be seen as fair, it would need to offer a leave option that could, in fact, be implemented.

Some have argued that for a future referendum to be seen as fair, “no deal” would need to be on the ballot. This would be a serious mistake: no deal is not an outcome, it would merely restart the negotiating process all over again, after a chaotic and disorderly break. It would resolve nothing.

So what would a credible leave option look like? Its foundation would surely be the negotiated withdrawal agreement. Brexiters may not like this, but they had their chance and neither May nor Johnson (so far) have been able to secure a better deal. The EU has clearly stated that it is unwilling to reopen what was already agreed with the British government.

Yet the withdrawal agreement only sets out the exit. The political declaration will determine the future partnership. Labour already knows the shape of its preferred partnership – a permanent customs union, regulatory alignment underpinned by shared institutions and deep security cooperation – and it has been accepted by Brussels. Indeed, both Donald Tusk and Michel Barnier suggested that Labour’s approach could have been a way to break the Brexit deadlock.

David Cameron
‘David Cameron, aided and abetted by the political class that backed the legislation for a referendum, organised a ballot that blew apart our relationship with Europe.’ Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

This means that a referendum could be held quickly and the result implemented immediately. If the people voted to leave, then the withdrawal agreement would be ratified, Britain would exit the EU, and the new partnership would begin to be forged on the agreed basis. And if the people voted to remain, article 50 would be withdrawn.

By backing a referendum along those lines in its manifesto, Labour would be able to go into the election offering a clear timetable for the Brexit question to be finally resolved. With the two options known, every Labour candidate – from Jeremy Corbyn down – would be under pressure to clearly state which they would support. It is clear that the vast majority of Labour’s members and parliamentarians would back remain, contrary to the insinuations of Watson and others. But those wishing to back leave should be able to do so without fear of retribution.

We are in this mess because David Cameron, aided and abetted by the political class that backed the legislation for a referendum, organised a ballot that blew apart our relationship with Europe. Instead of solving this problem, Theresa May exacerbated it by fundamentally misunderstanding her principal political task. She thought her job was to negotiate a deal with the EU when it was in fact to take a general mandate to leave and refine it into a specific mandate as to how. Rather than bringing the country together, her arrogant, aggressive leadership style ripped us further apart. And now, ultra remainers are taking a leaf out of her book. By demanding the divisive, they are driving the country down yet another Brexit dead end.

• Tom Kibasi is director of the Institute for Public Policy Research. He writes in a personal capacity