Let’s leave aside, for one moment, the questions around the legitimacy of the Leave referendum victory, the phony promise of £350m a week for the NHS, interference from dodgy foreign billionaires and Russia, and the fact that the referendum as enacted by Parliament was explicitly advisory and that it was only the Cameron government who said that a leave result would be implemented. Focus instead on the fact that a 48% vote for the status quo plus a tiny share of the Leave vote would deliver a mandate for maintaining the status quo on almost any Brexit-related issue.
The referendum result was so close that if 3.65% of Leave voters—call it 4%—had voted the other way, Remain would have won. That implies that on any Brexit-related issue, if only 4% of Leave voters sided with the Remain position of maintaining the status quo, there was no majority for change in respect of that issue.
If only 4% of Leave voters opposed leaving the single market, there was no majority for leaving the single market. If only 4% of Leave voters opposed leaving the customs union, there was no majority for leaving the customs union. If only 4% of Leave voters opposed ending freedom of movement, there was no majority for ending freedom of movement. If only 4% of Leavers wanted to maintain the Good Friday Agreement, there was no majority for risking the emergence of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland in any way whatsoever. If 4% of Leave voters opposed a hard Brexit, there was no majority for leaving with no deal.
It is impossible to imagine that the 51.89% voting Leave were so unified that not even one in twenty five of them would prefer a Norway-style arrangement over the most extreme break imaginable. Without that total Leave unity, there can be no mandate for a hard Brexit, no mandate for demolishing the rights and security of the three million EU27 residents in the UK, no mandate for anything except leaving the EU in name only.
If we are to insist that the referendum result compels us to leave in some form, even though it’s a waste of everyone’s time, the democratic position would be to settle our accounts, leave the EU while maintaining our place in the EEA, continue respecting the four freedoms, and accept that very little has changed except our losing all influence over EU policies going forward. Then, eventually, if a clear majority re-emerges that wants some influence over EU policy, we can apply to rejoin.
Or we could save a lot of trouble by holding a second referendum with three choices, staying in the EU, leaving in name only (still paying in, still getting the benefits, but with no say), or leaving with no deal, and see what happens to the hard-Brexiters’ “mandate” then.