As an evangelical Christian, self-styled ‘Brexit hard man’ Steve Baker will be aware of Luke 15:7, “I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent”.
He may also, as a 52-year-old man, be aware of a quote from Fawlty, Basil: “Can’t we get you on Mastermind, Sybil? Next contestant Sybil Fawlty from Torquay, specialist subject the bleeding obvious.”
Both come to mind with the report that Baker, a former chair of the European Research Group who called for the hardest of hard Brexits in the wake of his side’s 52-48% victory in the 2016 referendum, now believes it should have required a 60 per cent supermajority in order to have passed – the implication being that should be the line for future referenda.
“One regret is it probably should have been a supermajority,” Baker, now a Northern Ireland minister, is reported to have told a meeting of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly. “That’s a huge thing for me to say – because if it had been a supermajority we’d have lost and we’d still be in. But the reason I say that is if we’d had to have 60 per cent, everybody would have abided by the result.”
Other than the last part – if Remain had won with 60 per cent on June 23, 2016, the Brexiteers would still have begun their campaign for the next referendum on June 24 – Baker is right. Sane democracies tend not to rip up their constitutions, unwritten or not, or their central economic policy, on a simple majority in a referendum the governing party isn’t even supporting the change option in.
Australia’s Indigenous Voice referendum, held earlier this month (and lost by 61-39%) required a “double majority” of more than half of the total national votes and more than half of the voters in a majority of states to be in favour of the amendment. A similar system in 2016, when Scotland and Northern Ireland both voted heavily to Remain, would have seen a different outcome.
If hindsight is a wonderful thing, Canada provided a constitutional precedent for pre-Brexit Britain. The 1995 Quebec referendum resulted in a narrow 50.58-49.42% majority rejecting separation. Spooked that the country could have lost almost a quarter of its population on a knife-edge vote, Canada legislated for a (unquantified) “clear majority” for the Federal Parliament, as arbiter, to recognise the validity of any future poll. Quebec has not voted on independence since.
Why the sudden conversion from Baker? The first reason most obviously relates to his department. The minister was warning Northern Ireland’s leaders about any potential future vote on Irish unification. “Just reflect on the trouble we had from running a 50 per cent plus one referendum in the United Kingdom and ask yourself whether you really want that trouble in Northern Ireland – and I don’t,” he told them, asking: “Would anyone here seriously want a 50 per cent plus one united Ireland result in Northern Ireland?” (some voices in the room reportedly murmured “yes”).
But a here-today-gone-tomorrow junior minister like Baker (his majority in his Wycombe constituency is 4,214, suggesting he will be long gone by any future Irish poll) does not get to set the terms of any referendum. The Good Friday Agreement only states that both Northern Ireland and the Republic must vote in favour of reunification.
Which leaves the second reason, the one Baker has said he expressly joined the Conservatives to campaign for: Brexit. As polls show increasing disquiet over Britain’s departure from the EU, the Brexiteers are getting tense. Statista reports that, as of this month, 55 percent of people think that it was wrong to leave, compared with 33 percent who think it the right decision. YouGov reports that by 46 per cent to 36 per cent, Britons say there should be another referendum in the next 10 years.
Another referendum may be a decade off, it may be more. But remember that the Brexiteers began their push for the 2016 referendum and its outcome in the 1990s. Steve Baker and his ilk are starting now to set the terms of the next one and make the Rejoin movement play the game on an even higher difficulty setting.
The Tories setting the ground to gerrymander any future vote on returning to the heart of Europe? It is, as someone once said, bleeding obvious.