Is there time for another referendum before the new Brexit deadline?

alan.jfif (1)The last few weeks have been a whirlwind of Brexit news. Campaigners for a no-deal outcome have made themselves heard—as have campaigners for a second vote. But the new Halloween Brexit deadline is just over six months away. This raises the question: is there time to hold another referendum before we leave? And would it be possible to conduct such a vote in a proper manner? Alan Renwick addresses the key questions and concludes that a properly conducted referendum is preferable to a speedy one. 

In a report published last autumn, my colleagues and I at the Unit calculated that it takes at least 22 weeks—roughly five months—to hold a referendum in the UK. That allows 11 weeks for the necessary legislation to go through parliament and the Electoral Commission to assess the proposed question, one week to get ready, and ten weeks for the campaign. If parliament started this process today, a vote could be held on 26th September. So long as the wheels were set in motion by the European Parliament elections on 23rd May, a referendum could go ahead on 24th October; the last Thursday that gives time for the result to be declared before the deadline.

So the simple answer to the question posed above is, yes, there is time for a referendum by October.

But does pushing for a referendum at breakneck speed still make sense? Back when we were writing our report, the first question everyone asked was whether a vote could be held before Brexit day on 29th March. Once that timetable had become untenable, the question was whether the ballot could be organised by 23rd May or 30th June, so that the UK would not have to participate in the European Parliament elections. If a vote is being contemplated for September or October, that Rubicon will long have been crossed.

Crucially, EU leaders have signalled that the Halloween deadline will not be final if a decision-making process is ongoing by then. In other words, starting the referendum process could itself provide Britain with more time to deliberate. Businesses are desperate for some kind of resolution. But a well-run referendum would produce a more robust outcome. Taking a little extra time to ensure that would be worthwhile.

One fundamental issue concerns the options on the ballot paper. Campaigners for a referendum want a straight choice between the negotiated withdrawal agreement and the option of remaining in the EU. But many Brexiteers find the deal anathema. They would see such a vote as a stitch-up, delegitimising the result. A three-option referendum could alternatively be held, with a no-deal option alongside the other two. So long as a preferential voting system were used, that would be tenable. But most MPs see a ‘no deal’ Brexit as catastrophic. If voters chose it, would those MPs really be willing to acquiesce in all the preparations that would be necessary? If they cannot contemplate doing that, they should not put it before voters. There are no easy answers as to what the right approach is here—any referendum is fraught with dangers. It would be wise to spend time weighing the risks.

Then there is the question of how the campaign should be conducted. There is general acceptance that the rules by which the 2016 referendum was run were not fit for purpose. The Commons Digital, Culture, Media, and Sport Committee has called for reforms to tame the wild west of digital campaigning. The government’s recent Online Harms white paper acknowledges misinformation as a threat to democracy, and proposes a range of measures, including greater transparency for online political advertising. It would be remarkable if parliament did not seek to address some of these issues in the legislation enabling the referendum. Again, it would make sense to ensure proposals were examined in depth, not rushed through.

Whatever the legal rules, journalists, academics, policy experts and others should consider how they could foster a more reasoned debate than happened last time. Broadcasters such as Robert Peston have accepted that programme makers did not do a good enough job. Beyond fact-checking, which the BBC and others are already giving greater prominence, broadcasters should be promoting thoughtful discussion rather than endless seesaw tussling between the two sides. In another report, published last month, I argued that we should learn from Oregon, where, before a referendum, a group of randomly selected citizens meets for four or five days, hearing from experts and deliberating on the issues among themselves before setting out what they think in a short statement. The BBC could build on this model to draw the voices of ordinary voters into the heart of the campaign. Once again, setting this up would take time.

So, yes, a referendum could be held by October if parliament really wanted it. But rushing such a vote no longer makes sense. If a referendum is to be held, time should be allowed to settle the question, strengthen the rules, and do all that is possible to engender considered discussion.

This is a revised version of an article that originally appeared in Prospect and is reposted with permission.

About the author

Alan Renwick is Deputy Director of the Constitution Unit. He is the co-author of Improving Discourse During Election and Referendum Campaigns and The Mechanics of a Further Referendum on Brexit. He also served as Research Director for the Independent Commission on Referendums.

Reducing the size of the House of Lords: two steps forward, two steps back

downloadThere has for some time been an apparent consensus in parliament and government that the House of Lords has too many members, yet recent efforts to effect reform have made little progress. David Beamish explains how an apparent change of government position and the parliamentary tactics of a determined minority have slowed the pace of change.

There has long been concern, both within parliament and outside it, about the number of members of the House of Lords – currently over 780. The prospect of major reform seems remote. However, there have been two strands of activity to try to reduce the numbers: the proposals of the Lord Speaker’s committee on the size of the House (the Burns committee), and a private member’s bill to end by-elections to replace hereditary peers (the Grocott bill).

In November 2017 I wrote a blog post describing the publication of the report of the Burns committee as ‘a real opportunity for progress on reform’. In July 2018 I wrote another blog post on the continuing hereditary peer by-elections in the House, ending with the comment that, although other issues currently dominate the political and parliamentary agenda, ‘there may nevertheless be some prospect of real progress in relation to both the size of the House of Lords and the ending of the hereditary peer by-elections’. Subsequently there was heartening progress on both fronts, but last month saw two reverses. Continue reading

Is Tory unionism the greatest obstacle to Brexit?

image_normalAs the Brexit process continues, the Conservative Party is finding it hard to reconcile its desire to leave the EU with its longstanding commitment to maintaining the territorial and political union of the United Kingdom. Michael Kenny argues that, far from introducing a destabilising element to an otherwise sound constitutional set-up, Brexit has instead amplified and accelerated the debate about the UK’s territorial constitution.

‘I didn’t know it would break the United Kingdom’. This regretful rumination from columnist Peter Oborne – in a fascinating interview given in the wake of the recanting of his support for Brexit – touches on one of the key developments in the Brexit story. This is the gathering realisation in some Conservative circles that leaving the EU may well be incompatible with one of the foundational values of the Conservative party – the preservation of the integrity of the United Kingdom.

The painful discovery that these two goals are very hard – and maybe impossible – to reconcile is one of the great under-estimated political ironies of Brexit. For it has been those calling for the UK’s departure from the EU who have talked most confidently and directly about the distinctive character of Britain’s model of parliamentary sovereignty and the territorially differentiated unity expressed in in its constitutional arrangements. And whilst anxieties about whether Brexit might reignite the independence cause in Scotland were aired in the campaign leading up to the 2016 referendum, for the most part these remained at its margins.

But Prime Minister Theresa May has sounded a more anxious note ever since she entered office in July 2016. She has repeatedly – and a little mechanically – invoked the importance to her own politics of ‘our precious union’, a mantra that betrays a telling worry about the implications of a vote which accentuates a growing sense of political differences across the different nations and peoples contained with it, and also signals the salience in her own mind of the question of what implementing Brexit means for the domestic union. Continue reading

Towards a Devolution Backstop? UK government-devolved government relations after Brexit

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Two years after the invocation of Article 50, Nicola McEwen analyses the state of relations between London and the devolved administrations, warning that if Brexit damages the autonomy of the devolved institutions without increasing their influence, relationships between the UK’s territories may become ever more strained.

The Brexit process has undoubtedly brought about an upswing in engagement between the UK and devolved governments. Leaving aside the Joint Ministerial Committee (Europe) which since 1999 has met ahead of European Council meetings, there have been considerably more formal meetings between Scottish, Welsh and UK ministers in the 32 months since the 2016 referendum than in the 17 years of devolution that preceded it. In 2016, a Joint Ministerial Committee for EU Negotiations — JMC (EN) — was set up to foster intergovernmental collaboration and provide oversight of EU negotiations. Last year, a Ministerial Forum for EU Negotiations was set up to consider more detailed Brexit effects in particular policy spheres.

For most of the time since the referendum, Northern Ireland has not had a governing executive and so it hasn’t had a voice in interministerial meetings. Ministers from the Scottish and Welsh governments, by contrast, have had ample opportunity to make their voices heard. Whether the UK government is listening is another matter.

The devolved governments have had most difficulty in influencing the UK’s negotiating position with the EU. The Scottish government opposes Brexit in all forms – a position reflecting the big Remain vote in Scotland in 2016. The next best thing is continued membership in the EU single market and customs union. While respecting the narrow Leave majority in Wales, the Welsh government, too, has favoured continued membership in the single market and customs union. But, despite the JMC (EN) terms of reference committing the governments to seek ‘a common UK approach’ to Brexit, the devolved governments have had little impact in shifting the Prime Minister’s red lines. The UK approach to Brexit, it seems, is the UK government’s approach alone. Continue reading

Article 50: two years on


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On 29 March, The UK in a Changing Europe published Article 50 two years on, summarising what has happened during the Article 50 process, where we are now, and what might happen in the future. Here, its director Anand Menon offers his own view of how Brexit has been handled since Article 50 was invoked by the government, and offers an insight into some of the topics contained in the report.

Two years on. So little progress made. As metaphors go, watching parliament hold a series of eight votes and fail to muster a majority on any of them was not too bad at all.

And yet, and yet. For all the outward signs of chaos emanating from Westminster, things are moving. It was never going to be easy for MPs to ‘take control’ of Brexit, if only because all they control even now is the parliamentary diary. Parliament isn’t set up to make it easy for MPs to both set their own agenda and make decisions.

Moreover, it strikes me as slightly misguided to criticise the House of Commons for failing to come to a clear decision on Brexit. For on this if on nothing else, our MPs represent us faithfully. Like the public at large, they are deeply divided on the question of leaving the European Union, and therefore – again like us – it is not clear which if any of the possible outcomes a majority of them might agree on. Continue reading

Looking forward, looking back: an evening with David Natzler

IMG.2771On 19 March, the Unit held an event: ‘Challenges for Parliament: Looking Back, Looking Forward’, at which Sir David Natzler – who retired as Clerk of the House of Commons in February – spoke to Professor Meg Russell about his 40-year career in parliament. The discussion was both entertaining and informative; Dave Busfield-Birch summarises the key points.

Early days

Sir David first started working in the House of Commons in 1975, at what he called an ‘exciting time’, just two years after the UK had joined what was then known as the European Communities. His first assignment was as clerk to the European Legislation Committee, which was facing the novel challenge of sifting through the legislation passed by an unelected Council of Ministers sitting in the capital city of another country, and recommending which measures should be debated.

Parliament was unsurprisingly a very different place in the early years of Sir David’s Commons career. Talking of the key differences, he first spoke of how ‘expectations’ had changed significantly since then. For example, there were no limits on how long a Member could speak in those days. Whereas the Speaker (or one of the Deputy Speakers) can now impose relatively short time limits for MPs wishing to speak, that was not the case in 1975. Sir David considered this ‘almost one of the biggest changes’ of the past two or three centuries; that speaking for a long time can no longer be used to ‘destroy business’.

One of the other key differences between then and now is that the House of Commons lacked fiscal independence when he first started working there. It was instead reliant on the government for finance, thereby limiting its ability to take crucial decisions such as whether or not to recruit more staff. The Treasury hence had control of the Commons until the establishment of the House of Commons Commission in 1978, at which point the Commons became fiscally independent. Continue reading