This article has been updated to take account of new developments.
Despite Theresa May’s repeated opposition to a second UK referendum over Brexit, many advocates of such a move argue that another public vote is necessary.
A cross-party push for a referendum has been withdrawn due to a lack of parliamentary support. Polling suggests no majority backing among the public either.
The prime minister’s response to the huge parliamentary defeat inflicted on the UK-EU exit deal caused dismay, not only because ¨Plan B bore a striking resemblance to the ill-fated Plan A. It also appeared to confirm that her preferred Plan C would be no deal at all.
This galvanised opposition to a scenario that many politicians, business people and trade experts believe would be catastrophic for the British economy, as well as bad for Europe. By law, the UK is due to leave the EU on March 29.
In parliament, moves have been stepped up to wrestle control of the Brexit process away from the government and into the hands of MPs. More attempts have been made to force Brexit to be delayed in the absence of a deal.
The other 27 EU countries would need to agree unanimously on an extension to Article 50 – and may insist on conditions. If no majority emerges for a particular solution over time, supporters of a second public vote hope it could again enter the arena.
A year to organise?
Existing rules on referendums deal with the time needed for people to be consulted about the question by the independent Electoral Commission, for parliament to examine the legislation, and for the referendum campaign.
The paper lists the stages that would need to be completed: drafting the bill, passing primary legislation, testing by the Electoral Commission of the question, passing secondary legislation, designating the official campaigns, and finally, a 10-week period for the campaigns to run.
The document cites the timetable from the 2016 EU referendum, when the process took 13 months and cost almost £130 million (€150 million) – according to the electoral regulator. However, supporters of a second referendum accused the government of trying to undermine support for another vote.
Obstacles to a ‘People’s Vote’
“With political will, legislation can be rushed through on significantly reduced timescales,” according to a study published last October by the Constitution Unit at University College London (UCL). However, it warns that given the polarised political environment over Brexit, the result of any referendum must be perceived as legitimate.
The more complicated the question, however, with potentially multiple options, the more time the process would take.
Would the ballot be a straight choice between the negotiated withdrawal deal and a no-deal Brexit? Or between the withdrawal deal and continued EU membership? Or would it allow all three options?
The UCL study concludes that an extension to Article 50 would be necessary to allow a referendum to be held — in fact, for it to be staged by Brexit day, legislation should have been put forward by early October 2018.
Another potential obstacle highlighted is the vote for the European Parliament in May. The paper says a referendum could clash with elections for MEPs, given the uncertainty over UK participation. But it argues that if it was held by mid-May, then even if the country voted to remain in the EU, this should allow time for new British MEPs to be elected and take up their seats in early July.
The UCL study also recommends improvements to the rules governing referendums and covers for example government activity, the designation of the lead campaigners, and financial regulation. There are recommendations regarding the quality of information available to the public: online advertising should be more transparent; broadcasters could develop fact-checking further.
If there’s a will…
“If the political will existed to hold a referendum in the UK, this would almost certainly be accommodated in one way or another by the EU27,” the UCL study concludes.
It has been pointed out that other countries have held a referendum in an extremely short amount of time: in 2015 Greece staged a vote on the EU bailout in barely a week.
However, simple arithmetic shows numbers in the British parliament could pose an added complication: given the lack of a strong majority and the controversial nature of legislation linked to a second vote, attempts to disrupt the process would be highly likely.
A cross-party group pushing for a referendum has proposed a mechanism to head off unnecessary delays, preparing a bill to allow the Electoral Commission to begin paving the way for a vote without having to wait for the main legislation to be passed.
Paul Tyler, a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords and the party’s spokesperson for constitutional and political reform, estimated the whole process could take 16-17 weeks — enabling a vote to take place as early as May, before the European elections.
Unblocking the mess — or messing with democracy?
There are signs from senior figures in the UK’s main opposition Labour party that it will back moves in parliament to block a no-deal Brexit, which may in turn increase pressure for another referendum.
Theresa May remains vehemently opposed to a second public vote, telling the House of Commons that such a move “could damage social cohesion by undermining faith in our democracy.” The prime minister’s Brexit strategy has been dedicated to delivering the result of the June 2016 vote when the UK voted to leave the EU.
There have been warnings that another vote would create more uncertainty and division. Those who placed such faith in the first referendum would feel cheated. A second poll could even bring another victory for “Leave” — and a likely no-deal Brexit — exactly the scenario second vote enthusiasts seek to avoid.
Despite the current impasse in parliament over what to do with Brexit, there is no sign of a shift in opinion in favour of another referendum.
Yet some supporters of a public vote believe that if no majority emerges for any other outcome, it may eventually become the only solution left standing.
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