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  2. UK Politics
2 September 2019updated 07 Jun 2021 5:37pm

What Tony Blair gets right, and wrong about resolving Brexit

By Stephen Bush

Tony Blair has a plan to resolve the Brexit deadlock: a referendum between the government’s negotiated alternative and staying in the European Union.

Blair gets a few things right. The first is that an election is an imperfect device to solve the Brexit deadlock because elections are about a wide variety of issues. We saw that in 2017 when an election nominally called to “resolve Brexit” was dominated by a swathe of other issues and made the Brexit deadlock in parliament even tougher. Although there are some routes to a parliament that is better placed to deliver Brexit than this one, there is a strong likelihood that the next parliament will be just as badly deadlocked as this one if the election occurs while Brexit’s fate is still uncertain. 

The second, important factor is that there is no point or value to putting a no-deal Brexit to a public referendum because it is not an end state. The day after a no-deal Brexit, the United Kingdom will still have to negotiate a relationship with the European Union. The deadlock would resume, but many of the key participants would be poorer and angrier. You might as well hold a referendum on “Should we have a referendum, yes or no?” for all the value that would have.

There’s one major problem, though: the 2017 parliament. This is a parliament that has rejected measures to stop Brexit, thrice rejected the withdrawal agreement, and has voted down every possible version of Brexit into the bargain. The one thing it can agree on is that it should be given more time to make up its mind but it cannot even reliably agree on how much time.

To hold a referendum, parliament would need to agree the following: a timetable, a franchise, a question, and a series of regulations about spending limits and registered campaigns. The chances of this parliament doing so are less than zero.

That means, for all an election called to “resolve Brexit” will likely spiral onto other topics and may produce a parliament as or if not more deadlocked than this one, it remains a vital prerequisite to any action that can actually reach a Brexit end state other than a no-deal outcome.

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