A three-question second Brexit referendum would be a nightmare for voters and campaigners

We need a discussion on the shape of a potential second referendum – but Justine Greening’s three-way choice is the worst of all worlds.

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Justine Greening’s conversion to the cause of the campaign for a People’s Vote on the eventual Brexit deal – the most high-profile Conservative to do so yet – is a welcome development.

It’s becoming more and more evident that putting the issue back to the people is seen by a growing number of people, on all sides of politics, both Brexiteers and Remainers, to be the only way of resolving our future relationship with Europe.

Even aside from the fact that electoral laws were broken in the 2016 referendum, and overlooking the mounting evidence of Russian state-sponsored interference in the campaign – both of which alone might be strong enough grounds for reconsidering the result – and ongoing investigations by the Information Commissioner and the Electoral Commission, the public has clearly lost patience with the UK government’s performance in the negotiations with the EU. The slapdash decision to invoke Article 50 without an agreed and clear position on key issues has been exposed as an extraordinary act of naivety and incompetence.

So a People’s Vote on the final deal looks more and more like the only act of political leadership left.

But what should we vote on? There were plenty of problems with the Remain campaign in 2016, the absence of prominent Labour voices amongst them – and the failure of the media, including the BBC, to understand that this was a cross-party campaign, not a debate within the Conservative Party, as my Cardiff University colleagues Stephen Cushion and Justin Lewis pointed out in the New Statesman in October 2016.

Greening argues in today's Times for a three-question referendum. Voters would pick a first and second preference from “the PM’s final negotiated Brexit deal, staying in the EU, or a clean Brexit break and leaving with no deal”. I can well understand why she wishes to avoid what she calls “a divisive, binary choice.” The problem I have is that referendum campaigns are hard enough without constructing a complicated three-way choice.

I’ve been involved in a number of referendum campaigns. In Wales, we scraped a victory in the 1997 referendum on establishing a devolved assembly – just. In 2011, the people of Wales endorsed a strengthened Assembly overwhelmingly. Referendums are hard work and require different skills from those of general election campaigns. Data on voting intention needs to be built anew. Existing data from political parties is often irrelevant to the question on the referendum paper. Campaigns need to be built and messages tested.

Greening’s three-option choice would be a nightmare for referendum campaigners. I wouldn’t want to be running a campaign in that context. Just consider three options on the ballot paper. The reality is that campaigners for each position would have to rip the arguments of each other campaign to shreds. You can’t take prisoners in a referendum campaign. 

In the referendum she envisages, you would have two sides arguing for Brexit, and one for Remain. Soft Brexit, Hard Brexit and No Brexit. Issues of principle will become confused with issues of practicality. Some might argue that the balance of options would create an inexorable drive for the middle option, the Prime Minister’s final negotiated deal. Others might argue that it will in practice default to a Remain/Hard Brexit debate, since those positions are where the passions are strongest.

At the same time, there would be a new voting system, designed again to spur people to vote against their most hated position, rather than for what they actually believe in.

If a People’s Vote referendum is designed, in Ms Greening’s terms, as a face-saving option for the PM, then it’s not obvious how that case would be made in a referendum campaign. It certainly wouldn’t be the Chequers option, which everyone sees as unworkable and which will not survive the negotiating process with the EU anyway. That would mean the only Referendum argument for that position would be "this is the best we could get". That is not likely to motivate many.

Those of us campaigning for a People’s Vote have not yet made our case – and the position of my own party, Labour, has been all over the place. We certainly need a discussion on the kind of shape a referendum question might take – recognising that it is for the Electoral Commission to make the final decision. 

But a three-way choice is a distraction. Better by far to have a yes-no vote on the final negotiated deal – that would be a clear choice. If the negotiated deal to leave is voted down, then we stay in the EU. Simple, straightforward and clear. And while we are at it, let’s widen the franchise to give 16-year-olds the vote, as happened in Scotland in 2014. It’s their future, after all.

Leighton Andrews is a professor at Cardiff Business School, a former Welsh government minister, one of the co-founders of the Yes for Wales campaign in 1997, and chair of the steering committee of Yes for Wales in 2011.