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18 January 2019

Would it really take 52 weeks to run another referendum?

That’s the claim that some in the government have made. 

By Stephen Bush

Would it really take a year to conduct another referendum on the terms of the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union? That’s the eyepopping claim that ministers have made in conversation with MPs who want a fresh vote on whether the UK is better off in or outside the United Kingdom. The claim is particularly striking as it is a full 30 weeks longer than that suggested by University College London’s Constitution Unit, and 31 weeks longer than the timetable suggested by the Institute for Government, two respected non-partisan think tanks.

The claim is hard to believe and it underlines the pointlessness of engaging in talks with a government that is clearly not yet in genuine listening mode. But it also highlights the difficulty of securing another referendum when the governing party is not on side (parking for a moment the big problems getting the Labour leadership or a majority of MPs on side).

During the battle to get equal marriage on the statute book, David Cameron had to work closely with Ed Miliband and the Labour party whips because his own party was sufficiently opposed to it that it could only pass with Labour votes. The Labour party itself was committed to bringing forward marriage equality proposals: so far, so easy. But Labour was also committed to making humanist weddings a legally binding marriage ceremony in England and Wales (they were made legally binding by the Scottish Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition government in 2005). Labour wanted to bring both humanist ceremonies and equal marriage forward together, but ministers insisted that this was too difficult in the time available, and humanist weddings are still not legally binding ceremonies in England and Wales as a result. It is hard to see why it was so difficult to add the relevant bits to the legislation when a model already existed on the statute books of the Scottish Parliament, just as it is hard to see how the government can plausibly claim that it will take 52 weeks to hold a referendum.

But just as with humanist weddings, it doesn’t mean the government won’t get away with it.

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