The UK has voted to leave the European Union. I disagree with that decision, of course, but I am a democrat, and my democratic principles mean that I do not think that we should seek to overturn the result by any kind of undemocratic means. Quite the opposite - we should now engage in a democratic process to decide where we go from here.
The UK is currently in a difficult position, and is also putting the EU in a difficult position. It is quite clear that there was never any kind of agreed coherent Brexit plan on the table from the leave campaign - nothing the UK can go to its current partners with and say 'this is what we are intending to do now we have voted to leave'. We are also, as a result of this vote, in a position of political flux, in the two largest parties in particular, and in a state of financial instability due to uncertainty, and in a state of constitutional crisis, with various parties talking about a break up of the UK (and the different Brexit implications for the various different parts of the UK). We need to bring some clarity to all of this somehow, and quickly.
It seems to me that we have to set a clear, unambiguous timetable that allows differing views on Brexit (or not) to be put to the people via a democratic process. Some have talked of a second referendum, but personally I don't think that now is the time to re-run that divisive battle. It is clear that at least some people are changing their minds, and it is clear that some of the 'promises' and statements from the leave camp are unravelling, but the fact remains that the result is what it is, and we have to now move that process on. having had our 'In/Out referendum', we need to get beyond that simplistic vote and look at the details of what kind of Brexit we are ultimately going to try to have (based firmly in the reality of what kind of Brexit is actually possible, of course!). We need to get down to the nitty-gritty, and then let the people decide how to proceed from here.
Of course, that is made slightly more complicated in a sense by the two biggest parties having an unprecedented simultaneous leadership crisis. In another sense, though, that is an opportunity. The various candidates should have to plan and lay out their own Brexit visions as part of their internal party campaigns, and there is no doubt that that will be the big issue in their campaigns. They must put forward their ideas and plan, and let their parties decide which plan they want presented to the people. Other parties have to develop their detailed plans too, of course. We need a period for that to happen, and we need to make it clear to the EU, who are currently in the dark about what we propose as a country and when we are planning to trigger the Article 50 process to actually begin formal discussions to leave, that that is what we are doing.
So, by way of a timetable, I would propose something like this:
1. Over the summer, broadly in line with the timetable already set out by the Conservative Party over their leadership campaign, we have a period where all political parties can sit down, detail their plans, discuss and debate them internally, and choose new leaders to present them (and ultimately negotiate them with the EU) where they feel it necessary. By the end of the usual party conference season, all parties should have their own plans fully detailed, confirmed and in place, ready to present to the EU for negotiation when Article 50 is triggered, and ready to present to the people of the UK.
2. At that point, parliament should be dissolved, and a General Election should be held - perhaps in late October or early November. The date of that should be formally set now, so that there is no possible messing about later down the line. At that General Election, the various different Brexit plans will obviously form the basis of debate, and the people can choose between them at the ballot box. The people can then decide what vision of Brexit the UK is going to pursue with the EU through the 2 years of post Article 50 negotiation.
3. After that election, a new government can be formed according to the usual democratic process. After a brief pause to allow for the government to be fully formed, and for anything like coalition talks to take place, plans can then be moved forward. That government should then be the ones to begin the process of triggering Article 50 (or not, of course, if that is the platform that they have been elected on), and that government will then lead negotiations with the EU on the basis of the plans they have presented.
4. Given the timescales of the previous parts of the process, and to allow the new government to be firmly established and any necessary parliamentary processes to be followed to allow notification of the triggering of Article 50, it would then make sense to me to set a formal date of 31st of December 2016 for the formal triggering of Article 50, such that the UK would then formally leave the European Union on 1st January 2019. Those intended dates can be provided in advance to the EU, so they know exactly what is coming and when, allowing them to put in place any plans they need to for negotiations and so on (and to give a level of certainty for markets, other international partners, etc.).
Setting that timetable now would give clarity for everyone. Every party will know that they have a set amount of time to finalise their plans, and the people will know how and when they will be making their decision between them. The EU, and indeed the markets and so on, will also have clarity - they won't know what plans we are going to put forward until the end of that process, of course, but they will know when that will happen, and how it will happen. It would give everyone a measure of certainty that they just don't currently have in the UK's situation of apparent political meltdown. It will allow a little oil to be poured on the current troubled waters, so to speak, to just calm things down a little from the current level of general panic - not an end to the uncertainty about what will ultimately happen, but at least a measure of certainty about how and when the critical decisions will be made.
As a final note, the Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has already stated that, in line with the long-standing pro-EU stance of the party, the Lib Dems will stand on a platform of not Brexiting (and in the context of the timetable outlined here, therefore presumably simply not trigger Article 50 at all if elected). That is something I fully support - while I would not support any kind of 'trickery' to block the referendum-expressed will of the people, I see no problem with giving them another democratic opportunity to decide that, having seen the full plans and what it will all mean (and that will inevitably have been stripped of some of the wilder rhetoric and confusion of the leave referendum campaign), they want to remain in the European Union.
This is such a huge decision for the people of the UK. It decides the whole context of the future of the country. They need to be absolutely sure that they want to do it, and if they do want to do it they have to decide how they want to do it before the politicians go ahead and get on with it. We all need some clarity amidst the current confusion, so that we all know exactly how and when that is all going to be dealt with. I think that is in the best interests of the country, and in the best interests of every voter and every party, whether they supported Leaving or Remaining.