Why there won't be a second referendum

27 Nov 2018

Don’t be fooled by the incessant media chat surrounding the possibility of a second referendum. It is all sensationalised chat.


In reality, the chances of a second referendum taking place are slim, because no government has the will, or the time, to legislate for one.


To many it will come as a disappointment, but the People’s Vote campaign has been fighting in vain since Parliament departed for summer recess earlier this year. July was probably the last chance for Parliament to start considering the new legislation which would permit a second referendum.


As referendums fall outside our normal constitutional practices, primary legislation is needed to make a vote lawful. And as someone who avidly watches bills trundle their way through Parliament for a living, I can tell you this is very rarely a quick process.


To enact legislation that would permit a second referendum, a bill needs to make it through three readings in the both the House of Commons and House of Lords, before it then undergoes careful scrutiny at Committee stage in each chamber. This is then followed by giving the bill a tidying up at the report stage, then final votes to show agreement (or indeed disagreement) between both houses - known as ‘ping pong’ - before the bill can become law. This is, of course, preceded by draft legislation being published in a Green Paper, then a White Paper, followed by consultation before it can start being considered by Parliament.


This slow and consultative nature of the process is a good thing for democracy as it means laws are properly considered before being enacted, and any unforeseen unpleasantries are noticed and resolved.  


Of course, in the case of a law mandating a referendum, a number of additional factors also come into play. There is the need to agree the final wording of the question, the need to consult and tweak this wording to make sure it’s balanced, and the need to provide ample time for campaigning, which usually takes around 10 to 12 weeks.


And that’s not all, the constitution unit at University College London recently pointed out that preparation for polling itself would take around six months and highlighted that the passage of the EU referendum bill – which legislated for the 2016 vote – took 13 months, and this was when a united, majority government was in place.


Truth be told, we are now way past the milestone for another referendum. And this overlooks the vital ingredient of making one happen: will.


The delivery of the referendum needs the support of government. Without such, it is almost impossible to get laws through Parliament, even when lawmakers within the governing party are sympathetic. Furthermore, what would a People’s Vote offer a new Prime Minister beyond controversy, internal divisions and a risk to their position? A defeat would be bound to prematurely and immediately end any new premiership.


And counting on a Eurosceptic Opposition leader, who has made vague promises about "future options", doesn't give much hope. Labour would first need to count on securing election and then an election victory. Even then, Labour needs Eurosceptic voters to achieve that.


There is, however, one last hope for those campaigning for a second referendum – delaying the end date of withdrawal.


This could only be achieved by agreeing a significant extension of Article 50 with the European Union, which in itself is not a foregone conclusion. On the other hand, while the simple act of the UK requesting an extension may sound straightforward, it would be one that would fundamentally change the political dynamics in the country.


This very action would leave the majority of voters in no doubt that Parliament is not upholding their wishes.



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