What’s Worse Than Brexit? This.

Theresa May is pictured.
Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May

It’s official: the delayed parliamentary vote on Prime Minister Theresa May’s initial Brexit deal with the European Union is now scheduled for Jan. 15. May has had a brutal couple of months, culminating in a no-confidence vote spurred from within her own Conservative Party last December, which put her in a weaker position than at any other time during her premiership. She even received the dreaded Kate McKinnon treatment on Saturday Night Live, showing just how deeply her predicament has penetrated the news zeitgeist.

But May’s troubles don’t end there, and what will happen next week when she faces Parliament is anybody’s guess. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has said there is no room to renegotiate a new deal and told the UK to “get its act together” ahead of the January vote; the long-term question of how to avoid a hard border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland continues to be a sticking point, with German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas saying a hard border would be unacceptable to the EU. All the while the Labour Party, led by avowed euroskeptic Jeremy Corbyn, would prefer Parliament vote down her deal next week so that his forces can push for a revolt within her government and move on a full vote of no confidence, forcing a general election.

So, yeah: If there’s one word to describe the current state of Brexit, it’s “ugly.” In fact, short of a hard crash out of the EU—which, absent a deal, will happen on March 29, 2019—it’s hard to see how things could get uglier. Unless, of course, talk of a new referendum becomes a reality.

Since British voters shocked the world by voting to leave the EU in June 2016, many have wondered whether or not the UK would actually go through with it. After all, the “leave” campaign only barely squeaked out a win—52 percent of the British public voted to leave, and 48 percent voted to stay. It wasn’t until May invoked Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, officially signaling the UK’s intent to depart, that reality hit Her Majesty’s government. Everyone knew it would be a bumpy ride, but the past couple months have been downright painful for both sides. To prepare for the possibility of no deal, May’s government is warning of perishable food item shortages, chilled food warehouses are booked for the next six months and businesses are expecting disruptions in the basics like supply chain and inventory. It’s been so painful, in fact, that the European Court of Justice declared in December 2018 that the UK could revoke its Article 50 declaration and choose to stay in the EU as if nothing ever happened.

Many would view a move like that as undemocratic, and so it is highly unlikely. But it does bring up the question of whether or not May, who campaigned to stay in the EU, would try to push for a second referendum. She has fiercely shut down all talk of this, telling Parliament on Dec. 17 that “we must honor our duty to finish the job.” But the Brexit process is kind of like Calvinball, the anything-goes game from the old Calvin and Hobbes comics: Everybody’s making up the rules as they go along. That’s why a new referendum can’t be completely off the table until the UK officially exits the EU on March 29.

There are two main reasons why a second referendum could be a fiasco.

First, no one knows exactly what a new referendum would look like. The 2016 referendum consisted of one single “yes” or “no” question: “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union?” Easy enough. Today, the ballot would look more like a choose-your-own-adventure novel. In one scenario, a two-round referendum, the first question could look much like the original: stay or leave. But then, those who vote leave would have to choose between no deal and whatever deal May negotiates. The main problem here: What if the majority of Brits vote for no deal? In theory, that means a vote for the dreaded crash-exit with no long-term agreement with the EU. That’s not in anyone’s best interest, so would the UK government then have to honor that vote and simply leave without even trying for a deal? Other second referendum options include May’s deal versus remain, another remain versus leave vote, or three-way preferential voting. It gets complicated pretty quickly.

Second, if the UK government did hold a new referendum and this time the UK chose to stay, recent reports suggest it would likely only be by a slim margin. A poll by YouGov showed that if a referendum were held immediately, 46 percent would vote remain, and 39 percent would vote to leave. Further, “When the undecided and those who refused to answer were removed from the sample, the split was 54-46 in favor of remaining.” Polling expert John Curtice (who authored one of the other recent reports) warned not to get too “excited as to think this is some poll that shows a dramatic shift” toward remain, and “the apparent thin lead that remain have is at least in part built on the potential sand of the responses of those who did not vote two years ago.” So it’s not hard to imagine a scenario in which the original vote is flipped—this time, with 52 percent voting to stay, and 48 percent voting to leave. Would the UK government then decide to listen to the voters and stay? If so, the result would be a lot of angry Brexiteers both within and outside of Parliament, an even further fractured UK, and an enflamed electorate, many of whom would feel as though their democracy had been undermined. The UK would then stay in the EU, but it would be in a severely weakened state politically and economically.

Finally, one less explored question is where the United States fits into this debate, if at all. Former President Barack Obama was highly reticent to weigh in on the Brexit debate in 2016, and when he finally did make a speech about it that April, he urged members of the UK to vote to stay. He then faced fierce backlash for intervening in UK democracy.

For Trump, the calculus is different, as he has backed the U.S. into a corner with no room to maneuver. The president was openly pro-Brexit as a candidate; is friends with the politically toxic Brexit campaigner-in-chief Nigel Farage; and despises the EU, which he views as a foe created to undermine the United States. Trump also has a fraught relationship with European Commission President Jean Claude Juncker, who plays perhaps the most important role in the EU in determining what a future deal will look like.

If Trump did intervene, it would be on May’s side. Unfortunately, that risks angering the EU, further stoking anti-American sentiment floating around Europe, and ultimately making things more difficult for the UK. Trump would like to see Brexit happen, and happen smoothly. If that’s what he wants, then the best move would be to stay silent. Not his strong suit.

This is not to say a second referendum should not happen. If public opinion in the UK continues to drift toward Remain, then perhaps the best way forward is to give the voters another say. Especially now that they’ve gotten a taste of what life will be like without the EU, and as it’s become clear that there were many false promises made by the leave campaign back in 2016.

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