19 July 2018

The possibility of a second Brexit referendum is being discussed more widely at Westminster. But, Akash Paun argues, before anyone can decide whether it would be a good idea, a number of thorny issues must be addressed about how it would work.

The most commonly made case for a second referendum is that in 2016 the people voted for Brexit with different ideas of what that would look like. The argument now being advocated by senior figures from both main parties, and several minor ones, is that voters should be given a ‘people’s vote’ to ratify or reject the specific terms of Brexit that Theresa May hopes to negotiate this autumn.

The line from Downing Street remains unambiguous: “There is not going to be a second referendum under any circumstances.” Yet unambiguous lines from Downing Street have had a habit of bending or breaking under pressure over the past two years. A ‘people’s vote’ cannot be ruled out as a possible outcome of the current parliamentary chaos. But the risk is that the country hurtles into another divisive referendum campaign without properly thinking through what it is doing and why.

What are the options?

If we have learnt anything from June 2016, it is that referendums should be held only when there is clarity about the options on offer. So if a second referendum were to be held, it would be vital that the detail of each of the options was clear. It would also be essential for any options included to be achievable – including those which would require cooperation from the EU.

One immediate question that arises is what the options on the ballot paper should be. Referendums are usually binary yes/no questions. So a referendum could in principle be held between the negotiated deal and abandoning Brexit (assuming the EU-27 are willing to accommodate an eleventh-hour change of heart). Or between the negotiated deal and leaving without any deal.

However, the latest proposal, from Justine Greening, is for a three-way choice between the negotiated deal, a ‘no deal’ Brexit, and remaining in the EU after all..

What voting system should be used?

If it were a three-option referendum, what voting system would be used? Justine Greening suggests preferential voting, in which the least popular option is eliminated and second preferences are reallocated to determine the ultimate winner (as used in the referendum on the Australian national anthem). In a close contest, that could lead to the most popular option on first preferences being defeated in the end. Would voters accept that as a legitimate result?

An alternative would be a two-part referendum, a precedent for which is the Scottish devolution referendum of 1997, when voters separately decided on the principle of devolution and on whether the new Scottish Parliament would have tax-varying powers. 

But in a two-part Brexit referendum, what would the questions be, and in what sequence would they be put to voters? The outcome could well depend on these decisions. Would the first question be about whether or not to Brexit and then the second about how? Or the first question on the type of Brexit and then, given the type of Brexit, whether that was better or not than staying in? Or would question one be whether or not to approve the negotiated deal, and question two be a choice between Remain and No Deal, in the event the deal is rejected?

Is there time?

There is also a practical question about whether there will be time for another referendum, given the likelihood of negotiations going down to the wire. A referendum could only be held once there is a deal to put to the people, and it would do no good to the legitimacy of the result if the referendum campaign were compressed to a few weeks. There could be an extension to the Article 50 process beyond the end of March 2019, but that would require the unanimous agreement of the EU 27.

How should the views of the devolved nations be reflected?

Reopening the Brexit question could open up other questions too.  The first relates to devolution. In 2016, Scotland and Northern Ireland voted Remain, undermining the legitimacy of Brexit in those nations ever since. The Scottish Government view is that Brexit should not happen without consent in all four nations. The UK Government would be unlikely to concede that in a second referendum. The Scottish Government might also argue that in a multi-option vote, Scotland should have the additional option to remain in the EU as an independent state. In Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein might argue for Irish reunification to be on the ballot paper.

What should the franchise be?

A further debate would arise about the franchise: should 16–17 year-olds and EU citizens in the UK be involved this time? Including either of those groups could have swung the result last time. In a knife-edge vote the franchise matters.

Referendums have become a more common part of the British political process. However, there is still a lack of agreed conventions and rules about how and when they should be used. Before a second Brexit referendum is contemplated, all these issues must first be considered and resolved.


The government has ruled out a second referendum, the majority of people do not want one, so why are you wasting your time writing these articles.

Which data are you using to conclude the majority don’t want another referendum? An ITV poll last month found 48% did want a second referendum. Only 25% didn’t.

are the remains who want a second referendum prepared to foot the e u bill or do they expect the leavers to subsidize them again for the next forty or so years

Our net contribution to the EU is roughly £9 bn a year which is, again roughly, around 1% of public expenditure. The economic cost of leaving the EU calculated on almost any reasonable basis will be much greater. Right now estimates of the economic cost vary between £20 and £40 bn and that's before we've left. The government was talking recently about duplicating the Galileo programme (which we currently have access to) at a cost of £80 bn. So, as a remainer, perhaps I could turn the question around and ask if Brexiteers will compensate the UK for these costs, which already dwarf our contributions. BTW, can anyone explain why asking voters if they would like to change their minds is 'undemocratic' but having elections every 5 years is not. Should we just leave the current government in power because 'the people have spoken' ?

Your argument is deeply flawed. Elections every five years is predicated on condition that election results are respected and whoever get the majority form the government, and if you dislike the government, you can vote differently next time. But Brexit HAS NOT BEEN DELIVERED YET, which means you are simply dismissing a referendum result simply because you don’t like it. It’s just like most people cast their vote for the Tories in an election and Labour voters suddenly jump out and say nooo hang on let’s vote again!? It sounds crazy from a democratic point of view.

Hello. The Government has ruled it out, but the Government barely has control of Parliament or the legislative process, as we've seen in recent weeks. I am not predicting it will happen, but when you have senior figures in both main parties calling for this (Greening, Grieve, Mandelson, Umunna) you have to take it at least a bit seriously as a possibility. Whether the people want one is a different question. I'd need to look at the polling data, but in any case I'm not arguing that it *should* happen, just that it *might*, and if it does, we'd better think it through.

Do you think it right to deny an election result before the winner form the government just because people change their mind and want to vote again? If this sounds crazy, cancelling Brexit before it is even tried is a complete dismissal of democratic legitimacy.

According to all the polls there has been a steady increase in those wanting a peoples vote on the final deal to the extent that there is now such a clear lead that to ignore this change of mind would be most undemocratic. The Brexit side maintain the decision was made in 2016 and that is that. Well, I voted for Brexit but I feel so misled by all the false truths that I have changed my mind. In democracies we are allow to change our minds, especially once we know the true facts. The more voices that support a democratic resolution to the deadlock in parliament the more scared the Brexit side become and their arguments against a final vote are weak and nothing short of panic. Brexit can push as hard as they like on the throttle but their ship will not get over the tidal wave in the end. Our Democracy and common sense will prevail but oh dear, what a price we will have paid.

I assume that the vast majority of people who might change their minds in a so called “people’s vote “ would be the ones who voted leave in the referendum since I cannot see many “remainers” changing their vote.

That being the case I wonder why it is that I have never seen or heard any prominent person, MP or indeed any member of the public who voted leave in the referendum call for a “people’s vote” - no campaign by leave voters - no marching in the streets - just calls from “remainers” .
As one of the great uneducated masses I must be missing something here and I am probably totally wrong in thinking that the remoaners are hoping the “complacent masses” might get up of their backsides this time and carry a “people’s vote for them.

I voted to leave based on the benefit of history and education. What happens when an unelected elite concentrates power in one small sliver of society? Have we learned nothing over the past hundred or more years? I would refer all the Remainers who moan that 'they knew nothing' to the very clear Government pamphlet that was issued to every household as well as being available on line. This pamphlet was packed with the negative impacts of leaving the European Political Bloc yet a majority of the British electorate still voted to leave. How dare anyone say that this vote was cast in ignorance. Just leave!!!!

We should have a weighted vote with young people, who have longest to live with the result, given more votes than people like me who will be dead within ten years - say 5 for the youngest, 3 for those aged 40 - 60, and 1 for those over 60. Everyone should be allowed to spread their votes as they wish between the options.

This idea is a non-starter I'm afraid. It would (rightly) be seen as rigging the result and as an affront to basic principles of democracy. Anyone over the age of majority must continue to have an equal say in elections/referendums - right up until the point they die.

Sadly, it is stick-in-the-mud thinking like this that bogs us down in the sort of bicameral mess we are in today. We're in the 21st century for goodness sake! It's one thing to have one man/woman one vote when you can change your mind every five years (as in a Parliamentary election) - quite another when governments can change the rules at a whim ("advisory" anyone?) and use a very small majority (52/48) to justify a course of action which is apparently actually in no-one's interest. Don't forget that a fair number of those who voted "out" last time, including my own dear mother, are now dead.

But most of all, I'm surprised the IoG is so closed to debate/new thinking. Shame.

I am sorry to hear of your mother's passing. In response to your comment, I think this is conflating the general case for a second referendum (which I did not dismiss) with the specific proposition to introduce weighted voting based on age (which I did). That, to me, would fly in the face of core tenets of liberal democracy. We are indeed in the 21st century, as you say, and we have a decent (if imperfect) political system in which every citizen's vote is worth the same. Along the way, we have rightfully dropped anti-democratic practices such as giving extra votes to university graduates, or barring people from voting based on their gender or level of wealth. Giving the young extra votes would make it more likely that Brexit would be defeated, but that is no reason to gerrymander the electoral franchise, I'm afraid.

Referendum 1
Three options:
A) we remain in the EU
B) we leave the EU including the Single Market and Customs Union
C) we accept the agreement for leaving we have arrive at with the EU (whatever that may be )
The lowest scoring option is eliminated.

Referendum 2 - two weeks later
A run off between the remaining 2 options

The French manage it well in their Presidential elections and there is no reason we can’t. I’ve just put in the two week gap to allow voting papers to be printed and distributed

We do not need a long run up to this process. God knows we have been deluged with conflicting fact in the last two years and a long run up just allows more time for lies and disinformation to be produced

Yes that is an alternative in theory, but I see it as unlikely. Making the case to the people to have another referendum at all will be hard enough, let alone having to explain that there will be a third one too. If we do it, I think it's got to be resolved on a single ballot paper, one way or another.

Trying to resolve such a complex matter with a single question is what got us into this mess in the first place.
I support a proper people's vote and i think given that there are three choices we need two referenda to give the right degree of clarity and stop the silly arguments

A People's Vote is needed because the government is unable to agree within its own ranks a position on Brexit. The government statement that there will be no such vote is simply another 'red line' that can be moved, blurred, or erased. This issue will undoubtedly become of increasing importance as the negotiations stumble on and so this article is very much needed.

I enjoyed the article but the future seems bleak. The EU are likely to insist on substantial changes to Mrs May’s plan. It’s really very likely that whatever she comes back with will be defeated in Parliament - and maybe her with it. It will need a very substantial revolt in both the Labour and Conservative ranks to get legislation through for another referendum. So far only the ERS have produced big numbers in revolt. The anti-Brexit vote all too often fades away. A “crash out” is becoming horribly likely as time drifts away.

Fascinating article on the options for a further referendum. I see the logic of a multi-option single ballot with a transferrable or preference vote. But I think it is going to be difficult to use such a system given that, outside of Northern Ireland and London, the public has little or no experience of such systems. As for the absurd suggestion that a further vote is somehow undemocratic, these arguments remind me of the position adopted by the Algerian Islamists who won an election in the early 90s and took the view that democracy meant one person, one vote - once ever. That is surely a parody of democracy.

Thanks. Yes I agree that public comprehension of the electoral system is an important factor to consider. The worst outcome would be very close result, in which the outcome were contested (e.g. because it was determined by second preferences or something). That way lies a major crisis of democratic legitimacy in my view.

I am writing to protest about brexit (I do not want to honour it as a pronoun). It is a national disaster. It is clear now that politicians had no real vision of the consequences. There was no research of what the results of brexit would be and I have read of no plan. Leavers thought it was a good idea at the time and were surprised by the result of the referendum. The weak campaigners to stay in the EU were surprised too but they had done no research either so inadequate warnings were sounded. My own impression was that the brexit vote was driven by a strong undercurrent of xenophobia. It is evident that none of the much vaunted benefits will come true and much damage will be caused to industry and society. Immigration will decrease but only by the most highly skilled and qualified. We will lose much of what is left of our engineering and aerospace industries. Our scientific research will be fettered. We will be on our own. We cannot expect the Americans to tidy us up as they did seventy-five years ago.
The brexit vision is wrong, and it was always going to be so, because it has no real political basis but is driven by xenophobic envy for foreigners making some decisions for us. The envy is in turn driven by nostalgia for the British Empire. The arrow of history is for states joining together in empires to their mutual benefit. In the past this was done by force and much pain but the EU, while not being an empire in name, has never inflicted any pain on anyone. It is obvious that a group is stronger than the individuals within.
What dismays me most about this trivial, adolescent-like brexit squabble is that our politicians have inevitably had to neglect the real problems facing not only this country but our world. The world’s ecological problems and their effect on us are many orders of magnitude greater than piffling brexit. Europe cannot solve it alone. Nor can America or Russia or China. Only a World Authority of some kind can solve it and good politicians (without motivation of career advancement) should be working toward that. A Revolution of Cooperation is urgently required not a tearing apart. There is no time for this parochial brexit strife. We need big thinking and big actions and persuasive rhetoric.
But let us have another brexit referendum for voters presented with real facts to them beforehand.

Why do I read and hear every day only about difficulties the people and businesses of this country will face in the likely event of no deal with the EU and never the benefits we will enjoy? Will there be any benefits?

Everyone seems to be assuming that if in another referendum we voted to stay in we could just go back to where we were in 2016. Not so - terms of staying in would have to be negotiated and the others would want to make an example of us. We would probably end up back near the disastrous terms accepted by Ted Heath in 1973. The benefits won at great effort by Harold Wilson, Margaret Thatcher and John Major would be lost. Few would accept that once they understood it. I say this as someone who voted Remain.

There is a serious flaw in the Single Transferable Vote voting system.
It is well illustrated by an example from the late 70s in the University of Surrey Students' Union Presidency election.
There was a Far Right candidate, a Far left Candidate and..... the University Cat.
In fact the cat was a protest candidate. The guy who proposed the cat was fighting student apathy.
After the first round the votes were fairly evenly distributed.
In the second round, second choice votes were counted.
All the left leaning voters will have put the cat as second choice rather than the right wing candidate.
Likewise the right leaning voters.
So unless the cat came last, whichever of the serious candidates came last did not matter - the cat was bound to win.
Which he did!
The proposer of the cat having made his point on apathy, resigned and a repeat election was held a couple of weeks later.
But the point still stands. Single Transferable Vote has serious flaws.

Funny story. But sounds like the problem here was that you had two rubbish candidates. Neither STV (actually AV, to be more precise) nor the cat are to blame for that. If people wanted a better option then they should have found one in time for the election.

I think the weakness of the STV system is that it can be manipulated.
Particularly by not making a second choice vote or by strategically using the second choice vote to target one candidate
A relatively small number of voters can make an impact

The majority voted leave and that's it and should be accepted. A second referendum would be out of the question had the country voted to remain. Just because you don't like the result it doesn't mean you can vote again, just like the SNP didn't like the Scottish vote to remain in the U.K and wanted another go and still does? The U.K voted which means Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England are counted as a group. Had the Brexit negotiations been led by a true pro Brexit government, the negotiations would have gone very differently and certainly more positive for Britain. The leave voters are being undermined and the U.K is being mocked to deter any other country that's in the EU of thinking of doing the same. Leave voters voted for sovereignty, immigration control and control over our countries laws all of which is being taken away in the EU's quest to create a United States of Europe.

I think that if the government agrees a deal with the EU and Parliament agrees to it, there should be no second referendum. If, however, there is no deal because either the government and the EU cannot agree on a compromise or because Parliament votes down whatever deal has been agreed with the Eu, then there should be a referendum with a binary option:
1) Should we stay in the EU
2) Should we leave without any deal

Under the rules of democracy at the time of the referendum, however flawed they may be, the country voted to leave the EU. That is an absolute fact. The government has a duty to honour that. We should put this down to history and move forward. It may be better or worse for the UK. No one knows. All this doom-mongering is pure self-interested speculation.
What we need to learn from this debacle is that the voice of the voting population may not be the voice of the whole population. You mention Australia; Before we use referenda again we must make voting compulsory as they have done in Aus.

The assertion that the result of the first referendum should stand fails to acknowledge the misinformation peddled by both campaigns. It also forgets that the result was advisory, not binding on the government. I'm not convinced the leave campaign would have accepted a 48% vs 52% result if it had not been in their favour - Farrage himself has said as much. As for doom-mongering, I'd rather hear the views of experts than of mischief-makers like Boris Johnson, and while it was true to say 'no one knows' during the last referendum, we now know for certain that there are many serious negatives for the UK in leaving the EU. The possible good outcomes are still very uncertain. Finally - if our politicians are unable to agree, the only democratic answer is to bring it back to the people.

Sorry for joining the discussion so late, but I found this site only now, while googling for a "second referendum". As a foreigner (Finn) I am a bit bewildered by the debate in Britain on a new people's vote. According to Article 50 of TEU, the Treaties will cease to apply "ipso jure" on 29 March 2019. After that the UK is out, a "third country". The EU27 can unanimously extend that period, provided, of course, that the UK asks for it in order to be able to re-consider the case on the basis of a new vote or without one. In so doing, the UK Govt must at that point come out loudly and clearly in favour of "remain": it simply cannot ask for extra time just for biding the time.

Is such a scenario plausible in the short time-span remaining and given the intricasies of British politics ) ?

As indicated in Article 50, the relevant question after the UK left the EU , i.e. 29 March, would be: "Should we ask for membership in the EU, yes or no ?" Hardly the smooth object of a second vote.

Could you, pls, comment on this 1

Bo Eriksson

We had a vote.
Our Government used tax payers money to send everyone a leaflet telling us which way to vote.
We the people made our choice
If the vote is now overturned forget democracy in this country as millions voted for the first time ever thinking that their vote had a purpose
Break the promise made by Cameron and the tax paid for leaflet (contract) and expect a backlash that will rock this nation to its core.

The only realistic, logical and fair vote would be a two-part Brexit referendum with question one being whether or not to approve the negotiated deal, and question two being a choice between Remain and No Deal, in the event the deal is rejected. This would probably have to be separated into two separate votes with sufficient time for voters to consider each question as there is now a lot more information on both questions for voters to consider. Of course all of this has to be done before March 29 2019 which would be tight even if this plan was agreed today so the chance of this plan happening diminish with every passing day.

It seems increasingly likely that Mrs May will have no deal to bring to parliament. What happens in that scenario; is there a vote in parliament? What path could there then be to a second vote? And what options would be on it.

No one seems to be mentioning the "F" word-a Federal Europe which is as Guy Verhofstadt says is both logical and inevitable.
My question to the people who would like to remain in the E.U . is do you what eventually want to be in a Federal Europe with a single Budget, an E.U. army and a single finance Minister? If you do then you would have to be in the Euro-zone and that I think would mean exposing our economy to the 290 billion Euro toxic debt that the Italian banks hold and the 390 billion Euro toxic debt that the Greek banks hold.
Why cannot there be an Associate Membership of the E.U. for the countries who do not wish to be part of a Federal Europe.
I thought the hold process was to do with trade, but now politics seems to have become more important than trade.

Does everyone understand how much the Brexit question has changed or developed since 2016 when we SIMPLY voted yes or no . Of course we absolutely need another referendum when we can decide with the benefit of better information . I am an older remainer with four grandsons and feel that they will benefit more from being part of a greater , Stronger , Safer Europe than taking an isolationist Stance as I believe the older uninformed voters have taken . The conundrum of course is that if the country carries on with this rush to leave Europe , Scotland's remainers may possibly feel obliged to support a referendum on whether to leave the UK or not .

As a Brit in Poland. The situation appears as follows:
1) The UK voted to leave.
2) Article 50 was invoked.
3) 29 March 2019, the 2-year period expires and the UK leaves the EU.
4) A third referendum (1975, 2016 being 1 and 2) would be difficult to organise before 29 March 2019. The UK does not typically have winter elections, would this be allowed? Would it be safe for the elderly to be travelling in the dark/cold? Without a reasonable period for campaigning this referendum would possibly be subject to UK Supreme Court appeal. The court would possibly err on the side on "reasonableness" and say there has to be a campaign period of (say) 2 months. Official campaign organisations would have to be selected. etc
5) As a result of point 4, the UK would be outside the EU by the time of Referendum 3.0. As the Finnish contributor above pointed out, the UK would then be a third party and would have to apply for membership. This process would last (potentially) several years. Also, at the point of Referendum 3.0 the UK electorate would not know the terms of renewed EU membership.
6) As a result of point 5, there would need to be Referendum 4.0

Even when I wrote the piece in July I was doubtful a referendum could be held before March 2019. It is now virtually impossible to imagine. What is possible (in theory) is to request an extension to the A50 period to allow time for a referendum while the UK is still an EU member state. That would, as I understand it, require unanimous agreement across the EU. It would also surely require a change of PM at Westminster. And if the PM can't get the withdrawal deal through Parliament, well who knows what happens next...

The article mentions enfranchising (presumably non-British) EU citizens living in UK, but omits those British citizens, like me, living in the EU but outside the UK. I have not been able to vote in UK elections for some time and feel fine about that: I don't have significant assets there, don't work there and don't pay tax there. But I do have - and will always have - British nationality and it was an absolute scandal that and I and countless others like me were excluded from the referendum last time round, when our lives are so deeply impacted by the results. If - as I pray there will be - another referendum now that we really understand what "leave" means in practice, it would be a scandal to disenfranchise us once again.

You are right that this is another important question about the franchise, and I am sympathetic to your position. On balance, though, my view is that it makes sense to have the same franchise for referendums as for general elections. And as it stands, that means that UK citizens overseas (18+) can vote up to 15 years after leaving the UK.

Hello. I'm not sure whether to read that as sarcasm or not! But I can guarantee that if I were leading the negotiations there would be a lot more than 48 Conservative MPs submitting letters of no confidence in my approach.

We can probably all agree that what's by now become crystal clear is there are only three choices: accept the May's deal (and head for a few more years of turmoil, drama and uncertainty while the 'permanent' FTA takes shape, good luck with that); leave with no deal; or stay in the EU.

So, for me, the second referendum should only consist of these two questions:
- Would you be happy leaving on May's deal terms?
- Would you be happy leaving with no deal?

Since remain is the status quo, in case, as seems likely, of neither of the above options scoring over 50% of votes, this whole Brexit folly would finally be over.

This way of presenting the case in my opinion better reflects choices that are realistically available.

There are many reasons why people voted as they did, not just economic ones. and to think a second referendum will make things clearer in my opinion is naive. We will just end up arguing that the wrong question was asked If the result goes against our particular view.

How such an important decision is made is extremely important. You outline in the article very clearly how difficult it is to get to a consensus without causing the country to fall further into a democratic crisis. Timing constraints for a referendum make this even harder. In my view, simply not having enough time to do a referendum and/or further negotiate with the EU, is not a great reason for making a bad decision.
A new option presents itself with the ECJ ruling that the UK could unilaterally cancel Brexit. Doing this without a well-thought out referendum (which everyone seems to be saying we don't have time for) would be political suicide for the UK government. But what if we cancelled Brexit and then immediately afterwards submitted our intention to leave under article 50....?
Suddenly we would have 2 more years of political uncertainty, wrangling and general discontentment with the Status Quo - however It seems better than making the wrong decision in a knee-jerk reaction, with no way to reverse the decision.

With respect to getting to the right decision, in my view, the Brexiters need time to choose the option that best meets their needs (current deal, another renegotiated deal (which would need time to negotiate) or a hard exit. Once this is clear, we will then be ready for a vote between two options. It's in nobody's interests to vote for the University Cat (see comment from Simon Smith on 29-09-2018) .

Why is it refered to as a 'people's vote' and not what it really is which is a second referendum? The first referendum in 2016, which I voted leave from my hospital bed, was never refered to as a people's vote. Why is this one so different? I personally don't want a second referendum and can't see Theresa May calling one, but know it is still a possibility if parliament deems it the only way to solve the situation if the deal is defeated. Personally while originally supporting 'The Withdrawal Deal ' , I now think the best cause of action is to leave on 29th March 2019 with no deal. But what do I know .