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.

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

Could innovative voting rules break parliament’s Brexit impasse?

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Following last night’s inconclusive votes in the House of Commons, MPs are heading for another round of voting on Brexit options next Monday. The hope is that new voting rules will help deliver a compromise solution. In this post, Alan Renwick argues that a bold approach to the voting system could achieve a great deal – though, ultimately, compromise will be attainable only if MPs want it.

MPs last night declined to give majority backing to any of the eight Brexit options put before them. The architects of the ‘indicative voting’ process expected this and have therefore reserved next Monday for a second round. They hope to find a route towards a compromise that will break the Brexit impasse, and they have repeatedly suggested that a different voting process could facilitate that.

There are at least three fundamental questions about that process. First, what options will be included? All of last night’s options – plus the deal as it stands – might go forward, or they could be whittled down to a shorter list, or some options could be packaged in a new way. Second, how should the choice be structured? Writing on this blog earlier in the week, Meg Russell suggested that the options put should be mutually exclusive and exhaustive, and that two dimensions – outcomes and processes – should be separated out. Some MPs have adopted similar arguments. Third, by what voting system should MPs make their choice? Last night’s ballot used a series of yes/no votes, but something less crude is envisaged for Monday.

All of these questions are crucial, but this post focuses largely on the third. Its message is that MPs could indeed greatly ease the path to compromise through their choice of voting system. The rules cannot, however, do all the work on their own. Compromise can be reached only if MPs want it. Continue reading

A Northern Ireland border poll

alan_rialto2-1The prospect of a vote in Northern Ireland on Irish unity – a border poll, as it is often called – is more and more discussed. The Constitution Unit has today published a short report by Alan Whysall, Senior Honorary Research Associate of the Unit, which aims to set out the key issues, and stimulate discussion. Below, he outlines the main themes of the report.

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland must by law call a poll if it appears likely that a majority of the people of Northern Ireland would vote for Irish unity. This is a key part of the mechanism by which the question of Northern Ireland’s constitutional status was resolved in the Good Friday Agreement. A poll in the Republic of Ireland (the South) would also need to be held.

Members of the UK government have recently been talking about this possibility, in pointing up the dangers of a no-deal Brexit. There is no real evidence of a majority at present for Irish unity, indeed no inevitability that it will be found in the future. But from a range of opinion polling results it is clear that nationalism has a spring in its step, and opinion has become more volatile. There is some evidence in the polling that Brexit would indeed tip the scales narrowly to unity. If politics becomes especially brittle, such a change could occur in short order.

If there are votes for unity – both North and South – the consequence according to the Agreement is the negotiation of proposals for a united Ireland – taking in, potentially, almost half the Northern Ireland population who opposed such a move.

The provision in law and the Agreement regarding a border poll is stark and minimal. There was no opportunity in the negotiations in 1998 to develop it further: unity then was a distant prospect. There are hence serious gaps, and ambiguities, in the framework. Continue reading