In times of political turmoil, events can move from impossible to inevitable without even passing through improbable. In early 2016, the idea of Britain leaving the European Union seemed almost as absurd as the next American president being the six-time bankrupt and serial sex pest Donald Trump. A few months later, Brexit and the Trump presidency were universally acknowledged as the inevitable consequence of an anti-elitist, anti-globalization backlash that was predictable decades ago.
This sense of inevitability, far more than genuine anti-European conviction, is what has discouraged Britain from changing its mind about a pointless and self-destructive policy that few voters cared about until 2016. The message from post-Brexit polling and focus groups has been: "We all know that Brexit has to happen, so why don't the politicians just get on with it?"
But with the Brexit process now moving toward its climax, another outcome is moving from impossible to inevitable: Britain could soon change its mind and decide to stay in the EU. This reversal of fortune could begin next month, when Prime Minister Theresa May is expected to lose the decisive parliamentary vote on her Brexit deal.
If and when this defeat happens, May will face two unpalatable options. She could preside over a "No Deal" rupture with Europe – tantamount to a declaration of economic war against the EU – and risk a 2008-level economic crisis accompanied by a border upheaval in Ireland that could reignite the "Troubles". Or she could break her extravagant promises to honour the "people's instruction" from the 2016 referendum and allow a new popular vote that might cancel Brexit.
To avoid this invidious choice, May could try one last time to push her proposals through Parliament after losing the vote scheduled for the week of January 14. But if this last-ditch effort fails, her choices will be reduced to a No Deal rupture with Europe and a new referendum.
With the options thus narrowed, the risks and sacrifices of the "horror", as Britain's main business lobbies now publicly describe No Deal, will quickly come into focus, and a bipartisan parliamentary majority will surely converge to block this outcome. Several Conservative MPs have already promised to resign from the party if May shifts to supporting No Deal, and the rebel numbers could certainly swell enough to bring down her government.
As the impossibility of legislating either No Deal or May's deal has become apparent, the aura of inevitability that has protected Brexit from serious challenge since 2016 is vanishing, and soon the sense of inevitability may swing in favor of a new referendum. This shift has already started in the British media. Having spent the past two years denouncing anyone who challenged Brexit as "enemies of the people" and a traitor to democracy, the BBC, The Times, and other influential media organs have suddenly remembered that an essential principle of democracy is that voters have the right to change their minds.
But just as the "principled" objections to a new referendum are disappearing, a much more practical problem has emerged: What question should be asked in a final "People's Vote"? Should voters choose between remaining in the EU or accepting May's withdrawal agreement? Or should the options be No Brexit versus No Deal? Or what about the narrower choice between May's Deal and No Deal, demanded by Brexit zealots who argue that the possibility of continuing EU membership was eliminated by the 2016 referendum?
The obvious answer would be to present voters with all three options – No Deal, May's Deal, or No Brexit. But the problem then arises of how the votes should be counted if none of these options commands a clear majority. Under the first-past-the-post system used in British and American elections, the option supported by the most votes would win. But that would be completely unacceptable to Brexit supporters, who would be guaranteed to lose if their voters were split between May's Deal and No Deal.
Thus, to gain democratic legitimacy, the votes would have to be counted either through a preferential system, which asks voters for first and second choices, or with a two-stage process. For example, the ballot could first ask voters to state whether they accepted the government's Brexit proposal, and then to answer a second conditional question: If the government's deal does not win majority support, would you prefer No Deal or remaining in the EU? Alternatively, voters could be asked, first, whether they want to remain in the EU or go ahead with Brexit, and then, in the event that Brexit wins, whether they would prefer May's Deal or No Deal.
The strongest objection to a second referendum is that the different counting systems could give very different results, at least in theory, thereby undermining the legitimacy of the entire process. But this objection turns out to be theoretically valid only if public opinion is divided fairly evenly between the three possible outcomes. In practice, opinion now seems to be shifting to the point where clear answers are likely, regardless of how the questions are asked.
In the first detailed poll of all three Brexit options, conducted by YouGov in early December, a standard first-past-the-post vote would result in Remain winning a huge 54% absolute majority, against 28% support for No Deal and 18% for May's Deal. In a simple choice against May's deal, the majority for Remain would be even bigger, at 62%. And in a preferential vote count that redistributed the second preferences of May's supporters, Remain would still win by a decisive margin of 57% to 43%.
Of course, voters could change their minds in a referendum campaign. But as matters stand today, a new referendum would produce a clear majority for Britain remaining an EU member, regardless of how the votes were counted or the questions were asked. This suggests that the force of inevitability is starting to move against Brexit. "We all know that Brexit has to be cancelled," voters may soon be saying, "so why don't the politicians just get on with it?"
Anatole Kaletsky is chief economist and co-chairman of Gavekal Dragonomics and the author of "Capitalism 4.0 The Birth of a New Economy".
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2018. www.project-syndicate.org