We seem to have a Brexit deal today, which has two important components: free-movement between the UK and the EU ends (no single market) whilst on all matters of trade, the UK indefinitely follows the EU until a new deal is reached (a customs union). The nitty gritty has to be picked over and might unearth interesting elements, such as with tax-evasion regulation, fishing rights, and what-not, but in broad political terms the tradeoff is increased sovereignty over migration in exchange for less sovereignty over customs and many other regulations.
Now that there is something concrete, the likelihood of a second referendum increases: if the UK parliament rejects this deal then one logical way to break the deadlock is to have a second referendum to which the major parties bind themselves. There are other ways of breaking the deadlock before the deadline of March 29th, such as a roll-over of the whole show such that there is two more years of pantomime. Also, Labour might want a general election rather than a second referendum as a means of breaking the deadlock.
What would the suitable questions on a second referendum look like? The questions would have to break the deadlock and leave a clear decision on the next step. That requires more than a simple yes/no on this deal or between the many alternatives. What suggests itself is a two-part question:
Question 1. Do you support the Nov14 deal as the agreement with the EU to come into effect on March 29th, 2019? Yes/no.
Question 2. In the eventuality that a majority answers ‘no’ to Question 1 in this Referendum, do you support the UK remaining in the EU after March 29th as a full member? Yes/no.
Note that question 2 does not include a choice between ‘remain’ and any particular alternative, such as what is called a ‘Hard Brexit’. That is because there is no clear alternative that one could give a particular label: whatever happens outside the EU will involve lots of negotiations with the EU on many topics, which will thus include hundreds of decisions and issues that cannot be anticipated this moment. In effect, the concept of a Hard-Brexit is not very precise because it would in reality mean ‘continued negotiations and interim agreements’ and thus mean lots of things. Hence the only clear second question to ask of voters apart from whether the deal currently being proposed is acceptable, is whether a return to the EU is acceptable.
One reason why a second referendum is seen as not all that likely by the betting markets who give it about 30% chance, is that a second referendum is very likely to lead to a third one: only in the situation that the UK population rejects the current deal AND goes back to full EU membership has normality resumed. In all other scenarios there is likely some other agreement that will come up for potential ratification, including the possibility that the UK will apply for new membership!
What do you think would be the question(s) on any second referendum?
Oh, incidentally, the whole Brexit thing is a tremendous boon for the Conservative party which has every incentive to keep this going as long as possible: they have picked up the UKIP voters, so are well ahead of Labour in the polls; they are hogging all the top-political jobs because they are in power; and all major reforms that would alienate their supporters are off because Brexit takes all the energy. From a status-quo-loving conservative perspective, this is a fantastic state of affairs that they will of course want to continue as long as possible.