People’s Vote: Why a second Brexit referendum may not happen

The People's Vote on Theresa May's Brexit deal may never happen. Picture: Ian Georgeson
The People's Vote on Theresa May's Brexit deal may never happen. Picture: Ian Georgeson
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Support is building for the UK to hold a second referendum on Brexit as negotiations between Britain and the EU refuse to budge.

On Thursday the prime ministers of Malta and the Czech Republic openly called for a further vote on the UK’s withdrawal, adding there was an “almost unanimous” backing among EU leaders for another referendum.

The push for a second referendum is gaining momentum. Picture: AFP/Getty Images

The push for a second referendum is gaining momentum. Picture: AFP/Getty Images

But constitutional experts have highlighted there are significant obstacles in the way of the UK holding a so-called “people’s vote”.

According to Jess Sargeant, Alan Renwick and Meg Russell, academics from UCL’s Constitution Unit, the chances of the public returning to the polls on the terms of Brexit have diminished.

Here’s why…

What would need to happen for a second referendum?

The option of a second referendum, often characterised as a people’s vote, has been put forward by anti-Brexit campaign groups which believe the public should have a say on any final Brexit deal struck by Theresa May.

Another option would be for a vote to be held on whether Britain should remain in the EU if the Prime Minister fails to secure any kind of deal with Brussels.

But as the UCL team points out, if a second referendum is to be held before Britain leaves the EU on 29 March 2019, it would need to be triggered by October 9 – before any deal is likely to be struck.

• READ MORE: Theresa May criticises EU leaders after Brexit rejection

How long would it take to hold a referendum?

The authors of the UCL blog, state that to gain parliamentary assent and jump through all of the legal loopholes, it would take around six months to stage a vote.

“Allowing one week between passage of legislation and the start of the regulated campaign, and a 10-week regulated campaign period, would take the total period from start to finish to 24 weeks,” Ms Sargeant states.

What does this mean for Brexit Day on March 29 2019?

It means for a second referendum to take place, the UK would have to apply to the EU to extend the Article 50 process and thereby delaying the date by which Britain leaves the bloc. The researchers state that while this would be legally possible, as pointed out on numerous occasions by Lord Kerr who helped draft the piece of legislation, politically it will be a far more bumpy road.

What are the challenges of extending Article 50?

According to UCL’s academics, for Article 50 to be extended it would require all 28 members of the EU unanimously agreeing to the move. While the EU 27 might be willing to allow the UK to change its mind, selling the idea to Eurosceptics within Mrs May’s own party would be seriously difficult. Mrs May has repeated that Britain will be leaving on March 29 2019 and to renege on this promise would be a bitter pill to swallow.

What happens if Article 50 is extended?

This is the major sticking point. Should Mrs May – or another prime minister – succeed in uniting opinion at home to move the UK’s exit day, it would likely mean the UK would have to take part in May’s European elections.

As the Constitution Unit points out: “If the UK remains in the EU at the time of the elections, EU treaty requirements would legally oblige the UK to take part. Nonetheless, holding MEP elections would cause problems for both the UK and the EU.”

• READ MORE: In full: Theresa May’s speech on Brexit ‘impasse’

This would cause a number of significant headaches for both sides. It will annoy member states that were due to receive the extra reallocated seats given up by the UK. It will annoy Eurosceptics who do not want any further part in the European Parliament. And it will lead to fears among the European Commission that Britain will flood its MEP seats with anti-EU voices, upsetting the finely balanced European parliament.

A “bigger effect” would be running elections that will essentially become a proxy second referendum, redrawing the battle lines between the main political parties and potentially causing ruptures within them.

Does this make a second vote impossible?

No, but it makes it much harder. Unless another referendum is signed, sealed and delivered before the European election then it will cause major problems for the EU. The Constitution Unit points out that the knock on effect from the European elections will hit the EU budget negotiations. Any extension of Article 50 will also eat into the implementation period, which is when the UK is supposed to be hammering out trade deal with the EU.

After Mrs May was plunged into crisis following Thursday’s informal EU summit, the clamour for a second referendum will only get louder. But how this will work in practice is far from straightforward.

• This article first appeared on our sister site, The i