If Brits don't want a redo on Brexit, they should

Last week, British Prime Minister Theresa May unveiled a draft agreement governing the terms of Britain’s divorce, or “Brexit,” from the European Union.

The overwhelming weight of business opinion and all serious economic analysis conclude that Brexit will reduce Britain’s economic prospects in both the short and long run and leave the country poorer than it would have been had it remained within the European Union.

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Is it too late to correct this mistake? Or is Britain’s march toward the door unstoppable? In theory, reversing Brexit should be easy; in practice, it will be difficult.

Britain does not need to do anything as radical as changing its collective mind, since it never really gave a full-throated endorsement to Brexit in the first place.  

In an effort to silence an anti-European minority within his own Conservative Party, former Prime Minister David Cameron promised that he would hold a referendum on continued membership in the European Union.

The question posed to voters was clearly written without any thought as to the complexity of Britain’s ties with the EU — which involve everything from trade and immigration to fishing rights and law enforcement — or what would happen if it passed. It simply said: “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?”

Brexit was passed with a slim majority, slightly less than 52 percent of the vote, and it was assisted by widespread misrepresentations offered by the pro-Brexit side, some of which they admitted the day after the referendum.

In the United States, constitutional amendments must be passed by three-quarters of all the state legislatures; in most parliamentary democracies, constitutional changes typically require a supermajority of 60 percent or more of the members of parliament. A 52-percent majority seems a thin reed on which to support such a fundamental change.

Finally, the referendum itself was not legally binding. The law mandating that a referendum be held did not actually obligate Britain’s Parliament to do anything with the results — it only mandated that a referendum be held.  

Since the move to Brexit was based on a non-binding vote of a small majority operating on false information and a vague proposition, reversing course is legally feasible. Unfortunately, the difficulties are not legal, but political.

Cameron was replaced as prime minister by Theresa May, who opposed Brexit prior to the referendum but, upon assuming office, declared “Brexit means Brexit” and has promised to follow the “will of the people” as expressed by the referendum results. The deal she brought back from Brussels last week will face serious obstacles when it reaches Parliament.

May’s party is divided. A majority of Conservative members of Parliament opposed Brexit, although a substantial minority — more than 40 percent — supported it. It is not clear if they will support Prime Minister May’s plan. If they do not, she may be toppled from the leadership of her party.

The opposition Labour Party is in no better shape. Labour MPs opposed Brexit nearly unanimously and could sink the deal, which likely would lead to a fall of Theresa May’s Conservative government. This might well put the Labour Party in power.

Unfortunately, Labour’s hard-left leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who has gained a reputation for support of tyrants abroad and anti-Semites at home, also favors Brexit. Should May’s deal fall through, Britain could find itself in the disastrous position of having Corbyn as its next prime minister and still end up with Brexit.

There is a way out of this mess, however. Parliament could call for a second referendum to give the British people one last chance to derail the Brexit express, now that the costs of Brexit are better understood.

Calls for a second referendum are growing in Parliament, although proponents have not yet specified the precise form of the referendum and the consequences of the such a vote.

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Alternatively, the sensible center could dump both party leaders and support a transitional leader for a short period — an elder statesman who, freed from the hard-right and hard-left, could pull Britain back from the brink of an avoidable, costly mistake.

Of course, that will require courage which, as we know here in the United States, is in short supply among politicians.

Both of these processes could stave off the impending catastrophe that is Brexit. But they both require strong leadership and a willingness of political leaders to publically suggest reversing the course.

When criticized for changing his view on an issue of policy, the famous British economist John Maynard Keynes is reputed to have snapped, “When I am wrong, I change my mind — what do you do?” It is now time for Britain to change its mind.  

Richard Grossman is a professor of economics at Wesleyan University and a visiting scholar at the Institute of Quantitative Social Science at Harvard University. He is the author of “Wrong: Nine Economic Policy Disasters and What We Can Learn from Them,” published by Oxford University Press.