With exit day less than seven months away, one of the perceived obstacles to a second Brexit referendum is time. Here, in the second in a series of posts on the mechanics of a second referendum, Jess Sargeant, Alan Renwick and Meg Russell discuss the constraints, concluding a new referendum could be held much more quickly than previous polls but a delay to exit day would most likely still be needed.
In order for a referendum to be held in the UK, various processes must be completed, all of which take time. Many political commentators have dismissed the possibility of a second referendum on Brexit on the basis that there is insufficient time to hold one before the UK leaves the European Union, citing the EU referendum’s 13-month timetable as evidence of its impossibility. By contrast, many proponents of a ‘People’s Vote’ have argued that time is not a problem: earlier this month Vince Cable argued that a referendum could be legislated for ‘in a matter of weeks’.
The reality lies somewhere between these two positions: while the timing is challenging, it does not present an unsurmountable obstacle to a referendum.
What is required for a referendum to be held in the UK?
- Legislation – Primary legislation is needed to provide the legal basis for the referendum and to specify details that are not in standing legislation, including the referendum question, the franchise, the date of the referendum, and the conduct rules for the poll (although the latter two are often ultimately left to secondary legislation).
- Question testing – The Electoral Commission has a statutory duty to assess the ‘intelligibility’ of the referendum question, a process that usually takes 12 weeks.
- Preparation for the poll itself – The Electoral Commission and local officials need time to prepare for administering the poll and regulating campaigners. The Commission recommends that the legislation should be clear at least six months before it is due to be complied with.
- Regulated referendum period – The UK’s referendum legislation – the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act (PPERA) – specifies a minimum 10-week campaign period, during which campaign regulation applies.