The BBC has projected that a majority voted for the UK to leave the EU. To what extent is the referendum binding?

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    If only Britain was an anarcho-syndicalist commune with the good sense to require a simple majority for purely internal affairs and a two-thirds majority in the case of more major.... well...
    – J...
    Commented Jun 24, 2016 at 11:19
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    @J... this is why supreme executive power should derive from some farcical aquatic ceremony and not from the mandate from the masses. :p
    – SJuan76
    Commented Jun 24, 2016 at 11:44
  • The BBC were right
    – cat
    Commented Jun 24, 2016 at 13:23
  • 52% voted leave. Article 50 will be invoked, if not by an emasculated Cameron then by his successor. Any other outcome would be a denial of democracy, which was precisely the reason the Brits voted 'leave'. Commented Jun 26, 2016 at 20:29
  • @smirkingman Unlike the government of North Korea et al, I do not profess to believe in democracy. It is not a word which much appears in the Common-Law Constitution of Britain, nor anywhere in the US Declaration of Rights, nor Constitution, so far as I am aware. (I am ready to be proved wrong). What English-speaking communities unfailing support is Parliamentary or Representative Government. And what the Leave campaign has done is to usurp the sovereignty of a Parliament, which has existed for roughly 800 years. Signing Article 50 without parliamentary approval will be an act of treachery.
    – WS2
    Commented Sep 17, 2016 at 10:49

6 Answers 6


According to The Guardian, the referendum is not legally binding, and the final decision lies with Parliament.

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    Although it's not binding it would be political suicide to ignore it. There would be a massive amount of anger if the peoples decision was ignored or over turned.
    – Pat Dobson
    Commented Jun 24, 2016 at 11:32
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    I'm not sure about that - we're already seeing reports of people saying they protest voted leave and didn't expect to win (!), or didn't expect there would be an economic disaster. Part of the problem is that the project is the opposite of the Scottish Indyref in terms of organisation: there's no single Leave manifesto setting out how it was expected to happen. And the Leave community is overwhelmingly old and much less likely to resort to street violence, notwithstanding the murder of Jo Cox.
    – pjc50
    Commented Jun 24, 2016 at 13:12
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    @pjc50 There's also the fact that a number of the Leave campaign's promises are proving to be untrue - for example, Nigel Farage has already admitted the "£350 million a week" claim (which his side of the campaign didn't use) was misleading, and idea that economic warnings were "scaremongering" has already been disproven. Protest voters could well get cold feet once the reality of what it means really bites (though it's hard to see what form that could take). Commented Jun 24, 2016 at 14:33
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    @user568458: The economic warnings were scaremongering. That investors move their money around is only an indicator that people bought the scaremongering. These investors are the same clowns that didn't see the collapse of the IT and housing bubbles coming, even when it was staring them in the face. Commented Jun 25, 2016 at 5:14
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    @dan-klasson In what sense were the warnings scaremongering? Right now, Sterling has massively weakened against the dollar and the Euro, so importing things from two of our biggest trading partners has become multiple percentage points more expensive. Commented Jun 25, 2016 at 11:03

The ultimate authority lies with parliament, but…..

The UK Parliament has a history of avoiding outcomes like the French Revolution.

So it will need a very good reason for the UK not to leave, this would have to be something that was not expected at the time of the referendum. Most MP would have to believe that ignoring the public vote was more important then every getting elected again.

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    Besides if the party can install a new leader we could have a Labour Government by Christmas.
    – WS2
    Commented Jun 24, 2016 at 11:37
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    It's more complicated than this. Invoking Article 50 is a matter of royal prerogative (source: The Guardian) so is a decision that the Prime Minister takes and Parliament has no say in. Commented Jun 24, 2016 at 17:15
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    @DavidRicherby and the EU can't force the timing of it. Commented Jun 24, 2016 at 17:42
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    @Jules Yes, you're right. I should have said that Parliament has no direct say in it. But even then, Parliament can only give the PM the choice, "Invoke Article 50 or we vote no confidence and you're not PM any more." In principle, although it's absurd and would never happen, each successive new PM could say, "Hey, I know I promised I'd do this when you voted for me but I've changed my mind. I resign." Parliament can keep rolling the dice but they can't guarantee to roll a six. Commented Jun 25, 2016 at 10:53
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    @DavidRicherby You turned out to be wrong about this, as the Supreme Court ruled in the Miller case. Invoking Article 50 required an Act of Parliament to authorise it.
    – Mike Scott
    Commented Dec 16, 2018 at 9:27

Constitutionally speaking, it is impossible for any prior decision to bind the British Parliament in a way that prevents them from making a different decision at some later point. In this case, the possibilities are interesting. Cameron has stated that he feels a different leader should take control of the process rather than himself. There will now be a leadership contest in the Conservative party, and the results have the potential to be interesting. One plausible scenario is that some substantial portion of the Conservative party is unwilling to accept a new leader, resulting in the leader of the party being unable to present himself as having a commanding majority in the House of Commons (i.e. he/she would not be able to become Prime Minister), a situation which would lead to a new general election. Some existing Conservative MPs might defect to other parties or form a new party. Parties other than the Conservative party might not feel obliged to honour the result of the referendum, so if say a Labour/Liberal coalition ended up in charge of the Commons in a new Parliament (which is certainly a possibility if Conservative defectors split the vote in key constituencies), Article 50 might never be invoked. All of this is, of course, highly speculative, even downright unlikely, but it is possible.

(As a supporter for electoral reform, I will point out that this scenario would be even more unlikely had the UK switched from first-past-the-post to AV after the last referendum. But that's probably beside the point.)

  • Since the ascent of Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, an early election can only be called if a majority of MPs vote for a motion of no confidence in the government: a simple rebellion by Conservative MPs would not suffice, though in practice it's quite likely they'd be joined by those from other parties.
    – eggyal
    Commented Jun 25, 2016 at 14:01
  • @eggyal there can also be an early election if two thirds of MPs vote for it. Commented Jun 26, 2016 at 16:56
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    @DavidRicherby: True, but if the govt retains the confidence of 50% of the house, it's highly unlikely that rebelling MPs would be able to yield a 66% vote for an early election.
    – eggyal
    Commented Jun 26, 2016 at 17:55
  • @eggyal Given the turmoil in both main parties, it is impossible to predict what might happen. But I couldn't name a single MP who I would expect, right now, to invoke Article 50, certainly not Boris Johnson. (Nigel Farage might, but he isn't even an MP). Nor do I expect any future government to be prepared to do so until some agreement has been reached as regards to our future trading relations with Europe. So really it is a situation of stalemate, which the present government will hand on to its successor in about October. And who knows what water may have passed under the bridge by then?
    – WS2
    Commented Jun 28, 2016 at 19:08
  • It is not inconceivable that between now and the party-conference season, both main parties could split.
    – WS2
    Commented Jun 28, 2016 at 19:12

It is not binding. However, it's a democratic voting and I don't think a democratic parliament will disregard a democratically achieved decision.

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    Depending on how MP seats were gerrymandered, any national referendum might be foiled if the majority of the pro-exit citizen voters resided in a minority of seat districts. That is, an MP would be in little danger from voting against any referendum his own constituency also objected to.
    – agc
    Commented Jun 26, 2016 at 1:47
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    Most referenda consider a result with a small percentage difference a tie and not a decision at all. Often they seek to either (a) not change anything or (b) wait a couple of years and ask again. Before the vote, Farage said that a 52-48 win for Remain would be 'unfinished business' and he'd call for another. Commented Jul 13, 2016 at 21:27
  • Also, it's worth questioning if the voting actually merits a description of "democratic" in the light of both the main leave campaigns being fined for the maximum amount permitted in law for breaching spending limits and admitting to having lied to the electorate in their campaign materials. Commented Sep 2, 2018 at 14:42

While the referendum is not legally binding, it is in practice. David Cameron had said he'll invoke Article 50 immediately in case of a leave vote. While he has now said that he'll leave doing that on his successor, it's politically inconceivable that Brexit won't become a reality. In fact, the Brexit train has already left Brussels, UK's EU commissioner Lord Hill is resigning and it's unlikely that Britain will nominate someone else to take his place.

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    Cameron isn't going to do it, he's just announced his resignation.
    – Separatrix
    Commented Jun 24, 2016 at 8:15
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    It would be suicide for whoever's going to gain office next to not follow up on it.
    – Pyritie
    Commented Jun 24, 2016 at 9:05
  • @Pyritie But the problem that Cameron's successor will have is that at least two-thirds, possibly three-quarters of MPs favour our remaining in the EU. And no government can do anything without the support of Parliament. Moreover many pundits believe that Boris Johnson does not actually want the UK out. And the most recent news is that a motion of no-confidence has been issued in Jeremy Corbyn, which will be debated by the PLP on Monday. If Labour suddenly gets a new and dynamic leader, (Dan Jarvis?) who favours remaining in the EU, and who demands a General Election, what next?
    – WS2
    Commented Jun 24, 2016 at 11:27
  • @WS2 They can demand whatever they like but so what? The previous government introduced fixed-term parliaments. (Actually, that doesn't change anything, in this respect. The "demands" of the leader of the opposition have never carried much weight, since they don't command a majority in the House.) Commented Jun 24, 2016 at 19:55
  • @DavidRicherby What do the fixed-term rules say about a government defeated on a confidence motion? Certainly no government can or could continue in office if the House of Commons has moved "This House has no confidence in Her Majesty's Government". As an overwhelming majority of MPs are in favour of remaining, it must be a possibility. Just because the public has delivered by 52 to 48%, in a moment in time, a particular opinion - which may not still hold in opinion polls in three months time anyway, it is no substitute whatever for Parliamentary Government - continued
    – WS2
    Commented Jun 26, 2016 at 15:44

Now that the implications of the leave vote are becoming clear there are a number of issues that could prevent the UK from actually leaving the EU. For example, many leave supporters seem surprised that the currency and market reactions were so severe despite clear (having dismissed warnings from the remain campaign and from experts as scare mongering).

Strictly speaking the referendum is advisory but it is unlikely that parliament would want to block the act of leaving.

However, things are not so simple. The political chaos caused by the vote is likely to lead to a general election and, depending on what happens in that, the new parliament will have a different mandate and might feel it has the authority to ignore the referendum.

Moreover, it is already apparent that the implications of leaving were not clearly understood by the electorate or by the leave campaign (who never had much of a coherent view of what the terms of EU departure would actually mean). Some leave campaigners want a radical departure from the single market and tight control on immigration; others want a Norway-style deal that leaves the UK in the single market but this is impossible if free movement is abrogated. Until government has negotiated a specific deal it is impossible to judge whether people would be happy with the terms. While there was a narrow majority for a vague commitment to leave the EU (where the voters could believe whatever panglossian, incompatible terms they wanted to), there might be nothing close to a majority when the specific terms are clear. This implies either that parliament could say staying is better than the specific deal negotiated or they could argue that a second referendum is required to allow the people to vote on the specific departure terms.

So, even if parliament treats the result as binding, it doesn't mean it can make the actual decision to leave the EU without some further work. The most government can do is to negotiate a deal and, if the implications of the specific deal are unbearable, they would have to seek a further mandate to actually sign it.

PS As I was writing this Nicola Sturgeon claimed that the Scottish government might actually be able to veto any decision to leave. So the legal authority of the UK parliament might not even be enough to trigger the act of leaving. It looks as though nobody had fully though through the legal implications of Brexit.


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