If David Cameron had asked the right question on Brexit, Remain could have won

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Posted by Geoff Bishop.

Written by Tom Clark.

If “Remain,” “Hard Brexit” and “Soft Brexit” had been the options, the vote could have gone differently.

With the leaking of an official report, which makes stark how any flavour of Leave will make Britain poorer, the Brexit collision course with reality is becoming plainer this week. And, consequently, we are seeing the whites of the Leavers’ eyes.

We have heard David Davis’s department concede that No 10 found the economic analysis “embarrassing”, heard Liam Fox being forced to retract a reported remark that his fellow hardline Leavers should ready themselves for disappointment, and heard Iain Duncan Smith being a very quiet man when he was pressed on the grim prognosis in the Whitehall papers.

As the Brexiteers begin to look unsure about whether they wanted to win, it is a pertinent moment to ask whether they had to.

“He who pays the piper calls the tune” is often said to be the surest law in politics. But when it comes to referendums another is just as powerful: he (and let’s face it, it is mostly a he) who frames the question fixes the answer.

Thoughtful democrats have worried about the concentration of power that comes with the freedom to choose the moment of the vote, the terms of the proposal, and above all the choices on offer since the plebiscite that made Napoleon Emperor in 1804.

In particular, it tends to be easier for voters to rally against change, than to rally in favour of any particular proposition.

Electoral reformers in New Zealand were wise enough to avoid falling into this trap. When they have wanted to change the way the country votes, they split the question about whether to ditch the existing system, from the question about which system should be picked to replace it.

In this way, in 1992, they got overwhelming agreement to ditch First-Past-the-Post system without getting tangled up into defensive knots about the particular system that was picked to replace it.

There were moments when David Cameron appeared to also understand the importance of framing the choice. In the 2014 vote on Scottish independence, he held out stubbornly against the Nationalists’ demand to put “Indy-Lite” on the table. He foresaw (as, of course, did the Nationalists) that the hazy idea of a loose federation with London would be likely to come through the middle, and best both the dull offer of the status quo, and the scary leap of outright separatism. That was wise.

By the time it came to Brexit, however, the then-prime minister’s impressive result in the 2015 election had hardened the Etonian nonchalance into complacency. On detail after detail, he folded to the hardline Eurosceptics: on who exactly was eligible to vote, and on the date on which the vote was held, which he agreed to stage separately from local elections—which could have bolstered the turnout in Remain-friendly London and Scotland.

But above all, Cameron gave no thought at all to what the choices would be on the ballot paper. He believed that his obscure renegotiation—which focused on the preamble to a treaty, plus tweaks to a few benefit rules—would make Remain an attractive enough proposition to see off the gloriously mystical Leave, which could mean whatever you wanted. How wrong he was.

If Cameron had been as sharp as Alex Salmond, he too would have pushed for three options on the paper.

The reality, evident well before the referendum, is that there were, broadly, always three options: Remain, half-Leave with a soft Brexit, or go out in the cold completely.

The campaign could—and should—have been used to debate the merits of all three, in just the same way that they are being debated now. You might think that the middle soft Brexit option would be the most popular in a 48-52 nation, but if we’d had the argument about the so-called “Norwegian option” back then, most of the British public would surely have grasped that paying subs to a club whose rules you must follow, but can never change, is not a great deal.

Very few of the 48 per cent would have been tempted by it, whereas some nervous chunk of the Leavers would have been.

With three options on the ballot, I’m convinced Remain could therefore have come first.

Instead, the Leavers were free to postpone every hard choice until after the vote. Suddenly, however, Britain is learning that there is no ducking the reality of that choice. With a prime minister and a Conservative party that is looking incapable of making it, there are growing calls for a second referendum to say “Yes” or “No” to the actual Brexit deal on offer.

I’m sure it would happen, too, were it not for fact that there is now a ticking clock and 27 other countries involved. It could turn out that by neglecting to spell out the three real options on the ballot paper, Cameron has made it impossible for the British people to take back control.