Is a second referendum on Brexit possible? Seven questions that need to be answered

6993988782_6d34cf935a_o.jpgTwo years on from the Brexit vote, the benefits of a second referendum are being hotly debated. In this post, UCL’s Jess Sargeant, Alan Renwick and Meg Russell identify seven questions that should be considered before parliament decides whether a second Brexit referendum will take place.

Last week a Sky poll suggested that 50% of the public would favour a three-way referendum on the UK’s future relationship with the EU. This follows calls from key figures including Justine GreeningDominic Grieve, and Tony Blair, as well as a campaign launched by The Independent for the public to be allowed a vote on the final deal. Number 10 has categorically rejected these calls, stating that there will be no further referendum on Brexit ‘in any circumstances’. Nonetheless, talk of a second referendum is likely to continue. Whether you are a supporter or an opponent of that proposal, there are some big important questions about the practicalities of such a referendum that need to be explored. This post sets out some of the most crucial questions. In further posts over the coming weeks, we will begin to explore some of the answers.

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Second Thoughts on a Second Brexit Referendum

27240041144_189537893a_oRichard Bellamy discusses the circumstances that would allow for a second referendum to take place. Beyond the difficulties to overcome a potential “betrayal” effect, the design of this new vote would be highly controversial and it does not seem likely that Justine Greening’s system of first and second preferences would make it more legitimate in the eyes of the electorate and politicians.  

Theresa May has announced there will be no second Brexit referendum under any circumstances, prompting the wits of social media to recall her similar assurances regarding a snap election and declare that naturally there will now be one. Trying to divine what the Prime Minister really believes or wants seems a thankless task. However, a reasonable hypothesis is that she considers such a declaration as necessary to stem accusations of betrayal by the hard Brexit wing of her party, especially given some soft Brexiters and even a few Remainers also believe the popular vote for Brexit has to be honoured, and to buttress her authority to negotiate an agreement with the EU on the basis of proposals likely to win Parliamentary support. If so, two questions arise: first, does the accusation of ‘betrayal’ in the event of a second referendum have any foundation at all and second, and probably more importantly, under what political circumstances might she (or any immediate successor) be pushed into granting a second referendum?

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Those with changing preferences on Brexit are the engaged, not the dissatisfied and alienated

Boatleave - 10The so-called swing voters are often portrayed as being dissatisfied and disengaged from politics. Germ Janmaat draws from the conclusions of a research paper on changing preferences on Brexit to challenge that view and shows that the voters that changed their mind on Brexit express a high interest in politics and believe they are better informed than average.

Much research has already been done on the predictors of the view that Britain should leave the European Union. We thus know that older people, males, whites, and the less well educated are more inclined to vote for Brexit than their counterparts. We also know that those with socially conservative values and opinions on issues such as immigration, raising of children, and law and order are much more likely to prefer Leave over Remain. It is further common knowledge that opinions on UK’s membership of the EU are not exactly static:  While 53.8 per cent of the British public wanted the UK to leave the EU in June 2011, this percentage declined to 37.0 in May 2015 before it rose again to more than 50 in 2016.

We do not know, however, who changed their view on Britain’s membership of the EU and how they changed it. Was it primarily the indifferent and disengaged voters who started leaning more towards leave from a position of indecisiveness? Or was it a feature of well-informed and involved citizens who made a radical switch from backing Remain to supporting Leave? Knowing this will help us in making meaningful predictions about future trends in opinions about Brexit. If the changers were mainly engaged voters closely following the news, one could imagine that support for Leave starts to decline if the economy splutters and Brexit is increasingly blamed for this in the public debate. In contrast, if volatility is a feature of the disengaged, it might be more difficult to predict future developments.

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Brexit Endgame: Uncertainty Mounts in Face of Deep Tory Divides


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What, if anything, could still derail the Brexit process in the coming months? Kirsty Hughes thinks the biggest political crisis might be yet to come as the negotiations unfold. Particular stumbling blocks include Northern Ireland and the future customs arrangements.

With just six months to go to finalise the Brexit withdrawal agreement, the watchword most frequently heard around Whitehall and Westminster is ‘uncertainty’. The cabinet are at daggers drawn over the future customs relationship with the EU – a row that pays little attention to what the EU might agree to. And there is no visible progress on the backstop that would allow Northern Ireland to keep the border open whatever the future relationship. Continue reading

Post-Brexit Trade Relations: No Middle Way Between Free Trade Agreement and Internal Market

Screenshot 2018-05-16 10.22.43Piet Eeckhout and Clément Leroy examine various models for the UK-EU trade relationship after Brexit, and argue that a so-called bespoke agreement beyond existing frameworks is not available. This blog draws on Piet Eeckhout’s report Future trade relations between the EU and the UK: options after Brexit, which he is presenting to the European Parliament’s International Trade Committee on Thursday 17 May (watch here). 

The future trade relationship between the UK and the EU will affect a wide range of economic and social policies. Looking beyond what would be desirable from an economic viewpoint, one can examine the different models for this relationship that are under consideration in the context of the Brexit negotiations against the canvas of two distinct paradigms: market integration and trade liberalisation.  Continue reading