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12 January 2018

What would happen if there was a second EU referendum?

A series of variables.

By Stephen Bush

What would happen if there was a third referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union, following the In vote of 1975 and the Out vote of 2016?

As I wrote in my morning briefing today, the question is a bit redundant as there isn’t a majority for another referendum vote in the current composition of the House of Commons, nor is it easy to see how one might emerge before the next general election, which isn’t due until after we have formally left the European Union.

It seems highly likely to me that at some point the United Kingdom will hold another referendum on its membership of the European Union, with the only question being whether the gap between the 2016 contest and the next is as large as that between the 2016 referendum and that of 1975. (It’s difficult to say: on the one hand, the margin is a lot smaller. On the other, pro-European sentiments are in internal opposition in both the major parties and seem to be in a state of permanent decline in the Conservatives, which was not true of Euroscepticism in 1975.)

As well as the parliamentary arithmetic, the Article 50 timetable means that it is tricky to work out how you would achieve the mooted “vote on the final deal” in a timeframe in which the choice was “this deal or go back into the European Union” rather than “this deal or the country fall off a cliff-edge”.

To my eyes, the first plausible available date is 2024: two years into a Labour government with a small or non-existent parliamentary majority, which ends up holding a referendum to take us back in as part of its parliamentary agreement with one of the smaller and more pro-European parties of the centre or the left.  Predicting that feels like a mug’s game as we don’t know a) how Brexit will have gone, b) how popular that Labour government will be at that point, both of which you’d have to assume would be decisive factors in deciding the outcome.

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But let’s say that I’m wrong and there is a referendum on the deal. What would happen?  The immediate problem is that while the value of the pound has collapsed and the United Kingdom has become a global laggard as far as worldwide economic growth goes, that the worst predictions about the immediate aftermath of the vote have not come true would blunt the next Remain campaign. Whether this would be offset by the fact that the sunniest predictions of Leave campaigners have also not taken place is an open question.

The second thing to note is it is not immediately clear to me who the Remain campaign would be. The vote would be on the government’s deal (I am assuming for these purposes that Remainers would be able to get a vote that was the deal or retaining EU membership) which would mean that with the exception of a vanishingly small number of Conservative MPs – and by vanishingly small I mean “Ken Clarke and perhaps one other of the Tory pro-Europeans” – there would be no active Conservative politician on the pro-Remain side. What is hard to tell is whether that would increase the Remain campaign’s anti-Establishment bona fides and perhaps allow it to make even further inroads into the Labour vote, or if it would simply lead to an even worse performance among Tory voters.

My guess is the latter. The biggest problem in a second referendum would be a repeat of what happened in Scotland this year. People don’t like referendums on the whole: they didn’t like falling out with family members or friends and they had no desire to repeat the experience, which is part of why the SNP did worse. The anger simply at “having to do this debate over again” would, I suspect, be a major hindrance to any Remain campaign even should the miraculous happen and a parliamentary majority for a second referendum emerge.