Breaking the deadlock: O’Donnell backs a confirmatory Brexit vote

By on 09/04/2019
"...it behoves everyone to think about how we can move forward, one option is the possibility of a confirmatory referendum. And I’m now convinced that, having tried everything else, we need to try this." Sir Gus O’Donnell

Former UK Cabinet secretary Gus O’Donnell has spent nearly three years urging the government to unite behind a clear position on Brexit – but he’s finally concluded that only a confirmatory referendum can end Britain’s political gridlock, and get the country’s politics moving again. Interview by Matt Ross

Gus O’Donnell is no fan of referendums. “I believe in representative democracy. We elect our MPs, and they get on with it,” says the former UK Cabinet secretary.

But, nearly three years after then-prime minister David Cameron held – and lost – his referendum on EU membership, O’Donnell has come to the conclusion that only a “confirmatory referendum” can break the UK’s political impasse.

Speaking to Global Government Forum on Tuesday, Lord O’Donnell – who served as Cabinet secretary and head of the civil service from 2005 to 2011 – explains that ever since 2016, he’s been “prepared to go along with making the best of what people voted for. But that process has gone nowhere”.

In December, he still thought that the Commons might pass Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement. “I assumed that in the end, the European Research Group [of hard Tory Leavers] would back the PM’s deal as the best available Brexit,” he says. “They haven’t, and we’re stuck in this world where Parliament has no preferred option.”

“In those circumstances, it behoves everyone to think about how we can move forward,” O’Donnell argues. “One option is the possibility of a confirmatory referendum. And I’m now convinced that, having tried everything else, we need to try this.”

A clear choice between defined options

In part, his conversion reflects the fact that we now have two clear, binary options that could be put to the people. Referendums are only appropriate “when you can specify A versus B”, he points out: in 2011, for example, the Coalition government held a referendum on whether to retain the ‘first past the post’ voting system, or move to a specified ‘alternative vote’ form of proportional representation.

In the 2016 Brexit referendum, however, “we knew what Remain meant, but there were wildly different versions of Leave”. Some leading pro-Brexit campaigners argued that the UK would remain in the Single Market; others focused on securing new free trade deals or controlling immigration. None were keen to acknowledge the need to choose between these goals – arguing instead that European leaders, as environment secretary Michael Gove maintained, would bend the rules to maintain unfettered access to UK markets. As a result, O’Donnell points out, Leave voters had very divergent goals: “The 52% voted for a very wide range of things, from No Deal to something very like the Single Market’.”

‘We want to stay’ – the People’s Vote march (Image courtesy: Alessandro Mariscalco, www.alessandromariscalco.com)

But having won the referendum, the Leave side splintered. May’s ‘red lines’ – primarily around immigration, EU payments and the reach of the European Court of Justice – channelled EU negotiations towards a fairly ‘hard’ Brexit, outside the Single Market and Customs Union; but she did at least own the consequences of her decisions. Many of her Tory opponents, however, have never accepted the need to swallow uncomfortable compromises – particularly around the Irish ‘backstop’ – in their pursuit of Brexit, leaving the PM without a Commons majority. So each side waves the referendum result at the other, claiming to be the guardians of the true ‘will of the people’: “Their powers of telepathy must be amazing, to know exactly why people voted as they did,” O’Donnell comments wryly.

The political chaos since 2016, he continues, illustrates the foolishness of holding a referendum asking “the question: ‘Should we do A, or should we do something else?’ That just doesn’t work.” A confirmatory referendum, however, would present people with two clear options: either Remain, or back May’s WA and its accompanying Political Declaration – the deal negotiated over years by the ruling party.

This need for a clear choice also explains why, in his view, No Deal should not be an option. Voters could in theory be offered “No Deal versus a deal; then versions of the deal,” he muses, “but I think that’s too complicated.”

Create a fresh public mandate

So O’Donnell is ready to swallow his instinctive dislike of referendums; he certainly does not support the UK unilaterally revoking Article 50 without one. “Having had one referendum, it would be wrong to contradict that without going back to the people,” he says. “They need to be asked if they’ve changed their minds.” And the government’s requirement to respect the result of this confirmatory referendum, he believes, should be enshrined in law – making it hard for the losing side to throw the question open again.

The government is currently in talks with the Labour Opposition, in search of a compromise acceptable to both sides. And despite sceptical noises from the Continent, O’Donnell believes it might be possible to enshrine aspects of any cross-party deal in the Withdrawal Agreement: an international treaty that no future Tory leader could dismantle – or not, at least, without smashing up the future UK-EU trade relationship. “If the UK came to the EU with the idea of putting the Customs Union into the Withdrawal Agreement, the EU would find a way to make it work,” he argues.

However, many of the compromises secured by Labour in any cross-party deal would end up in the non-binding Political Declaration (PD). And May has already said that if her deal passes, she’ll give way to a new Tory PM – who could then decide whether or not to respect concessions made by their predecessor. “The PD is long and complex: there’ll be lots of things that will the subject of future negotiations with the EU. And we just don’t know how they’ll work out,” O’Donnell points out. “It will be fascinating to see in the Conservative Party leadership campaign what the different [would-be] leaders want to do in those negotiations.”

Hopefully, their proposals will be “clear and achievable,” he adds. “But maybe I’m being naïve; maybe they’ll be clear but not achievable.”

So even if May and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn were to broker an agreement, the risk is that a future Tory PM would ditch it and set off in search of more EU concessions – leading to yet more chaos, and another Parliamentary impasse. Following this logic, even a cross-party deal would require a confirmatory referendum to provide a clear public mandate, minimising the risk of Britain sliding back into political stalemate.

Lord O’Donnell speaking about the challenges facing governments worldwide at the Global Government Summit 2019

Let’s just check before we do this

O’Donnell also believes that a confirmatory referendum represents the UK’s best opportunity to reunite a desperately divided country. “Would the extremes on both sides ever be completely content? No: Europe as an issue has dogged the Conservative Party and the country as a whole for decades, and it’s not suddenly going to go away,” he says. “But would it be easier to bring people together after a referendum? I think so.”

What’s more, the former civil service chief notes that the public’s mood may well have changed. As recent statements by Brexit campaigners – such as attorney general Geoffrey Cox and commentator Peter Oborne – have made clear, Brexit is a much more complex task than many had realised. Views have changed; and a majority of the country may now prefer to Remain: O’Donnell worries that the government might push its deal through, only to find that afterwards “a majority say: ‘We didn’t want to do this’.”

And how about the argument – loudly proclaimed by ardent Brexiters – that holding a confirmatory referendum would undermine trust in democracy? “Consulting the people is undemocratic?” O’Donnell replies. “I don’t get that.” He’s just as sceptical of claims that holding a vote might lead to civil unrest: “The UK has a strong belief in peaceful, democratic means, and I would expect that to continue,” he comments.

The real risks

Some outcomes might, however, damage public faith in the democratic process. The House of Commons has this week passed a law to effectively rule out No Deal, O’Donnell points out – so a No Deal outcome “could create serious problems – not perhaps civil unrest, but people becoming disillusioned. Leavers were voting to restore the power of Parliament. If Parliament says we shouldn’t leave with No Deal and we do so, something’s gone seriously wrong with our governance.”

This public reaction would be exacerbated by the inevitable pain of a No Deal exit – for no matter how much the civil service tries to prepare, O’Donnell believes, “it would undoubtedly be highly disruptive. And it would impinge on us all, to a greater or lesser extent; it’s hard to see how any community would be left untouched.”

‘Leave’ demonstrators near the Houses of Parliament, Westminster (Image courtesy: ChiralJon/flickr)

In key fields such as trade, transport, agriculture, fisheries and non-financial services, he adds, “there would be a desperate need for transition arrangements. These are just the facts of breaking up one of the most complete single markets we’ve seen anywhere in the world, and doing it overnight.

“We’d end up saying: ‘Can we immediately come up with a sticking plaster to sort out the airline issues, the drugs issues’,” he continues. And the EU, of course, might not play ball. “Relationships would be very sour; and the risks of things that might hurt both parties are then considerably increased.”

Focus on the real problems

By contrast, following a referendum O’Donnell hopes that the UK could “get back to talking about health, education, jobs, the consequences of technology in the economy.” And events since 2016, he believes, have raised a new set of challenges to tackle – including constitutional issues such as the role of the Speaker, who in recent months has repeatedly broken parliamentary conventions. “There have been too many surprises,” says O’Donnell. “Government needs to work out what is in its control and what is in Parliament’s control, and we’ve had lots of precedents set on both sides. The result is increased uncertainty about the procedures, and that’s not good for anybody.”

More widely, O’Donnell points to the imbalances created by the variable sizes of constituency electorates – which give some voters more influence than others – and by Britain’s ageing population. “I think we have to look at the voting age at some point,” he argues. “As the number of older people grows, they have more and more weight. Should we be thinking about offsetting that by opening up voting to 16- and 17-year olds?”

But none of these issues can be addressed until Britain pulls out of its political paralysis – and a confirmatory referendum, O’Donnell believes, represents the country’s best chance of doing so. He has, he says, “very little idea of how it would go. It’s not a foregone conclusion at all: last time, the polls were very poor indicators. And a referendum might be affected by factors that have very little to do with Europe – which is why, in my view, they should be used very rarely.”

Just this once

In a referendum campaign the battle for voters’ support would, again, be acrimonious. “I would expect further extreme language from the hard end of both sides in the debate,” he says. “The Leave side would say: ‘Tell them again!’ and try to keep away from the details of the deal. For the Remainers, it would be important to talk about the positives of being in Europe.”

As O’Donnell contemplates how a campaign would pan out, it’s clear that he believes the positives of EU membership do outweigh the negatives. “I think we have more power and more control working inside the EU,” he says. “The Single Market – which Margaret Thatcher championed – has increased prosperity in the UK. The UK’s voice in the world is enhanced by our being members of the EU – and we’ll be diminished if we end up outside it.”

However, above all, the former Cabinet secretary desperately wants to see Britain moving forward – leaving behind it one of the most turbulent and humiliating periods in its recent history. O’Donnell has spent three years urging government to set out a clear, united position, and hoping that Parliamentarians would be able to find a majority for a realistic outcome. But that approach, he believes, has run its course: political leaders should seek a second – and final – direct mandate.

Whatever the result, O’Donnell argues, a confirmatory referendum would at least sweep away the confusion and controversy created by a referendum in which voters were asked to choose between one fixed outcome and one amorphous one – whilst ensuring that every voter felt they’d been fully consulted on Britain’s fate.

Lord O’Donnell may not like referendums, but it was a consultative referendum that created this political whirlwind; and in his view, only a confirmatory public vote can replace the storm with a steady wind – allowing Britain to set a course for the future.

About Matt Ross

Matt is a journalist and editor specialising in public services, policymaking, government and management. He was the editor of trade title Civil Service World from 2008 to 2014, serving an audience of senior UK officials; and the features editor of weekly news magazine Regeneration & Renewal between 2002 and 2008, covering urban regeneration, economic growth and community development. He has also been a motoring and travel journalist, and now combines his role as editorial director of Global Government Forum with writing for other publications including The Guardian and Planning magazine.

One Comment

  1. John P

    10/04/2019 at

    Both choices were clear in the referendum

    The alternative version of leave being presented are actually just ways to stay whilst still calling it leave.

    Leave means leave its very clear. Its just that a some people want to keep asking the question again until they get the answer they like.

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