The United Kingdom European Union membership referendum (23rd June 2016) resulted in a vote in favour of the UK leaving the European Union.

To give effect to the referendum result, i.e. to leave the EU, Parliament needs to notify the EU that it is enacting Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union.

If Parliament did not follow through on the referendum result and trigger Article 50 to begin the process of leaving the EU what would/could happen?

Brexit results.


11 Answers 11


Traditionally the UK holds that Parliament is sovereign. Some modifications to the absolute sovereignty of Parliament have been made, starting with the Parliament Act of 1911 and including aspects of human rights law (contrary to popular belief withdrawal from the EU will not in itself change the legal situation regarding human rights), but it is basically still in place. Therefore in law Parliament does not have to answer to anyone, and the referendum is only advisory.

But to disregard the majority result of a hard-fought referendum that was presented to the British people by politicians from all major parties and from both the Remain and Leave sides as the most important democratic vote in their lifetimes would be political suicide. The legitimacy of any government that tried it would be fatally undermined, and not only among those who voted Leave.


The Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 does not mandate that anything happens after a referendum. Legally, the UK government is entitled to do whatever it likes with the result - without legal consequence.

Note that this is significantly different to referendum legislation in other countries.


They are not required to follow the referendum, but there might be a political backlash if they don't. On the other hand there will probably be a backlash if they do as well.

  • 1
    If they do go ahead with this small majority win, there will be political backlash internal AND external AND serious economic consequences. So I don't think they are going to proceed with the exit. At least that is not the smart thing to do. Commented Jun 27, 2016 at 8:36
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    Can't they just pretend to be doing it? "We are filling the papers, takes time..." Until everybody forgets about it. Commented Jun 27, 2016 at 15:16
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    @TonioElGringo "Somewhat one of our interns has missplaced the official result list and now we don't know for sure who won. We are going to repeat the referendum, please everybody try to remember what they voted last time and do it again the same way" :-p
    – SJuan76
    Commented Jun 27, 2016 at 22:02
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    @TonioElGringo : how long do you suggest they "pretend" then? it's already been 2 years since the original question above was posted & I don't see any evidence of people forgetting about it yet :)
    – Pelinore
    Commented Dec 16, 2018 at 14:17

There is an important precedent for ignoring a referendum with a small majority, although in that case the enabling legislation actually specified the turnout threshold.

The referendum is also not legally binding, nor is it self-executing. This is important, because since R v Factortame the UK is bound to observe EU law even if it contradicts acts of Parliament, unless Parliament specifically repeals the European Communities Act.

That implies that part of leaving the EU would require repealing the EC act, which in turn implies that if Parliament does not approve it the UK hasn't left the EU. If the Prime Minister tried to leave the EU without parliamentary approval I'd expect an immediate legal challenge on this ground.

Since the PM did not send the Article 50 notice immediately, and has instead resigned, in order to Brexit Parliament would have to approve (a) a new leader with confidence of the House and (b) the sending of an Article 50 declaration. As the Leave campaign kept reminding us, Parliament is sovereign and therefore does not have to do anything.

I think it's most likely that a new election will be called in which each party has to state as their #1 manifesto commitment whether to respect the referendum or not. They're currently having extreme trouble working this out, but a government with a manifesto commitment to remain in the EU being elected immediately trumps the legitimacy of the referendum.

  • I disagree with the last premise. If all major political parties campaign on a manifesto of ignoring the referendum result, then that is not legitimate from a democratic perspective, because the electorate have no choice. Even if not all parties do so, some segment of the electorate will be forced into a choice between a party they don't like, or an EU result they don't like. If you want to "trump" the legitimacy of the referendum, you need a second referendum in which the electorate changes its mind.
    – JBentley
    Commented Jun 30, 2016 at 9:08
  • One of the major arguments of the Leave campaign was the sovereignty of Parliament. Not the public; there's no concept of popular sovereignty in England (there is in Scotland). The referendum could have been made legally binding but wasn't. There will be at least one major party running on a platform to respect the result - UKIP. Quite probably the Conservative party too, although we'll have to see what happens when their civil war is over. Again, the country cannot leave the EU without overturning the EC Act and Factortame, which cannot be done without parliamentary approval.
    – pjc50
    Commented Jun 30, 2016 at 9:28
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    "forced into a choice between a party they don't like, or a [...] result they don't like" - this happens for at least some people and policy choices at every single election, especially under a FPTP system. And again there is precedent (79 Scotland referendum) for ignoring a thin referendum majority.
    – pjc50
    Commented Jun 30, 2016 at 9:29

There are really three separate issues here.

First is the written law, in this case article 50 of the Lisbon treaty and the European Communities Act are the most directly relevant. The European Communities Act is the basis in UK law for Britain's membership of the EU and is a key part of the mechanism by which EU law is translated into UK law. So this would logically need to be repealed in order for Britain to formally leave.

The second aspect is constitutional convention, if you like the moral imperative behind UK governance. This is complex as the UK does not have a comprehensive written constitution to fall back on and much is determined by precedent and the way that power is devolved to Parliament from the Crown. Note also that the UK operates on government by representation and there is very little precedent for where direct votes on specific issues fit in. Note that the Scottish independence referendum has specific legislation put in place beforehand to make the referendum binding.

The third issue is political and really relates to the credibility of politicians and political parties with the wider electorate. Here the uncertainty comes from the fact that the Leave side of the argument was not attached to a single specific manifesto setting out what the UK's relationship with Europe would/should look like. So while simply leaving right now with no deal in place could, in theory, happen it is unlikely that parliament would accept this. Equally it is becoming increasingly clear that the major players in the Leave campaign e.g. Boris Johnson vs Nigel Farage are adopting significantly different stances post referendum.

The real complexity here is that while the Remain side was campaigning on a fundamentally very simple and clear cut platform, i.e. the UK's legal relationship with the EU stays the same, the Leave side covered quite a lot of different possible outcomes, from complete and immediate separation to a Norwegian type option which is not that far away from full membership, especially in terms of trade, regulation and movement of people.

Similarly the key issues of free trade, free movement of people and regulation are very closely bound together so there is no trivial solution to unpicking them and there is likely to be a serious divergence between the hard right of the leave campaign (e.g. United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP)) who are outright hostile to the EU and more moderate sectors like Michael Gove and Boris Johnson who have been a lot more conciliatory in tone and will (probably) be campaigning to lead the Conservative party on a platform of unity and reconciliation. It is also possible that very extreme minority political organisations, like the British National Party (BNP) will see this as an opportunity.

It is highly likely that some portion of Leave voters will be unhappy with the exit deal negotiated, whatever it looks like and if no deal is reached or the deal is economically very bad then it may well bet that a significant number of leave voters would change their minds.

There is also a reasonable argument that if there was a significant change of mind by leave voters, especially considering that the vote was close and the very long term implications and irrevocably of leaving that a second mandate of some sort would be required whether by another referendum or a general election win by a party with a specific leave/remain platform.

Legally and constitutionally this could certainly happen but all sides will be wary of the possible political fallout from either being seen to ignore the original referendum result or from pressing ahead with a leave deal which no longer has popular support.

This is further complicated by the fact that there is a lot of uncertainty about what the current opposition would look like after a snap election. The current Labour leadership probably wouldn't support a second referendum or climb down on leaving but that situation is very much up in the air at the moment. It is not beyond the realms of possibility that the PLP could either split off entirely or see a mass exodus to other centrist parties with the current Labour leadership reforming around the unions and activists and looking a lot more like the hard leftist party of 70s and 80s. How that would split the electorate as a whole is hard to guess. Much would depend on whether a Corbyn leadership which survives on the support of activists and unions as old-style hard left or alternative and progressive and how much UKIP is able to appeal to current Labour voters in their traditional constituencies.

  • This gets my +1 because it underlines the fact that the leave vote is very fractured, varying from people who thought they were voting to get more money for the NHS to people who were voting to evict all of "those sort of people" the second the vote was counted as well as a myriad of other reasons. A good portion of the leave voters have now had their bubble well and truly burst so the result of an opinion poll taken today would be illuminating.
    – mcottle
    Commented Jun 29, 2016 at 3:36

The Government is a subset of Parliament, a party commanding a majority forms the Government, unless it is a Minority Government, where no overall majority could be established by coalition. Nothing would happen if Article 50 were not to be invoked, except we'd have a general election. This would mean each party clearly stating in their manifesto, their position on membership of the EU. The electorate would then have to vote for a party that represented their opinion. (How things normally work!) For example, a vote for the Liberal Democrats would be a vote to remain in the EU. The problem with the Government (Conservative Party) being on both sides of the issue is that they would have to split into two parties each with its own manifesto. This would split the conservative vote and hence there would be no overall majority for a 'single conservative government'. Which is why David Cameron will invoke Article 50, because he would rather have a conservative government out of the EU, rather than be in the EU with another party in government. This is why parties that are divided on major issues, tend not to be elected. This is why you always hear politicians saying that their party must 'come together' or that they need a leader who can 'unite the party'. This referendum was only to determine which side of the conservative party was to be silenced.

By the way, do not refer to referenda as democratic - they are not. Democracy is leadership by elected representation. Referenda are the antithesis of this, they are the government abdicating responsibility for decisions they have been elected to make.

  • 1
    "Democracy is leadership by elected representation." Not necessarily. "Referenda are the antithesis of this" Antithesis does not mean incompatible with, it means direct opposite of. The antithesis of a referendum would be a totalitarian decision by a despot.
    – barbecue
    Commented Jun 27, 2016 at 16:43
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    I thought "leadership by elected representation" was a republic, and direct rule by the majority of citizens was "pure" democracy.
    – wberry
    Commented Jun 28, 2016 at 17:54
  • Antithesis? You're right, forgive my hyperbole. If a referendum is actual Democracy, then we in England do not live in a democracy, because we are not governed by the majority of the people, but by representatives elected by the people. I think the term democracy is more generic and covers multiple systems of government. None of which actually agree with this umbrella term. My point is that our system of government, regardless of name, is done by via representation.
    – Flippsie
    Commented Jun 29, 2016 at 10:40
  • The current government didn't abdicate responsibility for this decision, the electorate asked them for a referendum when they voted for them in the 2015 election (it was part of their manifesto). Your reasoning would only be valid if they had planned a referendum mid-term. In this particular case, holding a referendum was representation.
    – JBentley
    Commented Jun 30, 2016 at 9:14
  • The UK isn't a pure democracy in any sense, it's a constitutional monarchy with an unelected upper house!
    – pjc50
    Commented Jun 30, 2016 at 9:33

First off, the UK government MUST go ahead with this even if they do not want to.

We live in a democracy in the UK and the people have spoken that they want to leave, the UK government has to follow that. As other people have pointed out, the referendum does not really count for anything and the government could just tear it up and not bother with it.

It's difficult to answer with 100% accurate because it's not something we have faced in before, with the government ignoring the people on this scale. But, I imagine that it would have serious consequences for them.

For example, it could cause a lot of people to protest, maybe start rebelling against the government and force them to dissolve parliament. As people would lose faith and confidence in their government that they elected to listen to the people. It would, end really badly for them.

As for the party in power (Conservatives) they would most likely not exist after this. I imagine that it will be very damaging for them. I'm not saying that it would destroy them completely however if you look at the previous general election, the Labour party took a major hit and did not do anything on this scale. People react differently and come down hard on the people in power. Let's take the Labour Party at present, a lot of blame is given to Jeremy Corbyn for his leadership skills following this result. I imagine that the same would happen if for example Boris (If he becomes PM) did not follow through with it. His party would simply rebel, resignations would follow, causing the party to be in a crisis which would eventually result in him losing his position. When things like this happen, it does not just effect the political party but if something like this happens within the party that is in power it could have a huge economic effect as well as a security threat. People see the UK is unstable then this might show weakness and with the conflicts and uncertainty within the world at the moment, this would be very bad.

In the EU it could also have serious consequences, for example the deal that the Cameron made with the EU has now been destroyed and is no longer on the table (This was part of the deal that the UK voted to stay in). This would mean that the government would have to go back to the EU and try to make a new deal, which, if you think about it, the EU would have the upper hand as it's kind of like saying "Ok, we have gone outside and it's too cold, we want to come back in" -- The deal would then be less on the UK's side.

It would also put pressure on the leaders of the EU from other members. In many cases, a lot of the other member states within the EU do not really like the way that the Brits get "special treatment" that some other countries do not get. Why should the UK dictate, throw themselves outside of the EU and when they do not like it, everyone bows down to them and let's them back in?

I believe that peoples minds are made up, whether they knew what they were actually voting for or not. The EU has (kind of) made their mind up and wants the UK to leave as soon as possible. All that's left is the UK government to "push the button" which is providing more difficult than it was first thought it in the campaign stages.

Either way, it has been agreed by the UK people that they want to leave, it has to be followed up by the government AND there will be no referendum within this government. That being said, legally, there's nothing to stop another government getting into power and holding another referendum (As I understand). There is a very high chance that there will be another general election in the near future.

  • 1
    agree, especially on the last paragraph. But if the parlement approves the leaving, Scotland would have the right to get another referendum asking them if they want to leave the UK, right ?
    – Gautier C
    Commented Jun 27, 2016 at 7:46
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    @GautierC To clarify, I am far from an expert on this, or Scotland. Just stating my opinions. I'm looking forward to see what she is going to do. From the Daily Politics though, and over the weekend she would not state what exactly she would do!
    – Phorce
    Commented Jun 27, 2016 at 8:12
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    @bon I have the feeling Boris did not want or expect to win. He wanted to get profiled as the next leader, and win points by backing a populistic but losing horse. Now he gets the job he has been scheming for for the last 20 years, only the seat is too hot to sit in.
    – RedSonja
    Commented Jun 27, 2016 at 11:46
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    I believe your bold statement, and the rest of your answer, is entirely opinion and not germane on this site.
    – djechlin
    Commented Jun 28, 2016 at 17:28
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    "Holding another referendum because we didn't like the answer from the first one" is how the EU deals with referendum results it doesn't like - for example Denmark voting against the Maastricht treaty in 1992 and Ireland voting against Lisbon treaty in 2008. A recent news story said that someone in EU was proposing "writing a new mission statement and getting every country to hold a referendum to agree with it" as a way forward in the current situation! The UK government would have great political difficulty ignoring the result of a voluntary referendum because it "got the wrong answer".
    – alephzero
    Commented Jun 28, 2016 at 20:49

Fact is, I don't think the government was expecting the "Leave" to be first, and a lot of people said they voted "Leave" so the "Remain" doesn't win with a large majority, to show how angry they are.

Anyway, they are not required to do so, this referendum is not legally binding. The problem relies in the fact that if they do otherwise, the population will be really mad at them.

But Cameron resigns, in order to let another Prime Minister to do the job to start the process of leaving EU. By giving the duty to another Prime Minister, It is not sure the UK will leave EU, since the referendum was not held during the mandate of the new PM, he would not be bound to that.

The new Prime Minister would negotiate, saying that it is not legally binding, and since he would have been elected by the people, then no problem.

The people of UK have faith in their government, so betraying them would end up really badly, so they choose the smooth approach to solve this problem ^^

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    I will certainly not downvote your answer. It is a clear answer to the question. But I am very confident that past the first two paragraphs it is completely wrong. Cameron is not trying to make an opportunity for the UK not to leave. He emphasized throughout the campaign and in his resignation speech that he would respect the decision. No one gets to be a two-term prime minister and increase his party's majority on the second term without being in touch with public opinion. He knows that such faith as the UK people have in their government would be destroyed by ignoring the referendum result. Commented Jun 27, 2016 at 7:46
  • Never said he would not. But if there is a new Prime Minister, we agree he would be not bound to the referendum, which didn't occure during his mandate, right ? I am not from UK, but that is what the press in my country is saying right now, I just wanted to emphasize this idea. I'll edit my answer.
    – Gautier C
    Commented Jun 27, 2016 at 7:49
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    As I said in my own answer to this question, due to the doctrine of Parliamentary Sovereignty, no prime minister, new or old, is bound in law to respect the result of the referendum. But any prime minister, new or old, would be unable to command the support of party or country if he or she tried it. The press in your country is mistaken. Commented Jun 27, 2016 at 8:19
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    The trouble with that argument is that the chance of any new PM being elected on such a manifesto is close to zero. I can't point to an opinion poll right now, but as an example look at the comments (arranged in order of recommendations) to this article in the Guardian newspaper in which David Lammy MP suggests doing that. Despite the fact that the Guardian and most of its readers supported Remain the comments are overwhelmingly hostile. For example one highly-recommended comment says, "Insane. I voted Remain but respect the will of the people. You don't use democracy against itself." Commented Jun 27, 2016 at 8:32
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    With respect to "since the referendum was not held during the mandate of the new PM, he would not be bound", I think there needs to be more clarity about possible scenarios. One scenario, which is currently playing out, is that the Conservative party elects a new leader, who takes over from Cameron as PM. That leader's mandate as PM is the one Cameron won last year, which includes respecting the result of the referendum. The scenario which would give a genuine mandate to ignore the referendum would be a new general election where the winners campaign on a manifesto promise to remain. Commented Jun 27, 2016 at 10:17

What would happen?

  • We can be sure that most who voted "Leave" will be angry that their votes were ignored.
  • Crucially, even many who voted "Remain" would be left to wonder if their vote really mattered anyway, or ever did.

For Parliament to ignore the result is to risk a general loss of confidence among the public that their votes are counted, or matter at all. (If Parliament was going to ignore a result they didn't like, why proceed with the referendum and attach such gravity to it in the first place?)

What happens as a result of that? That's another question.


Well, the promises made before the vote would be broken, and come next election time people would be inclined to turn to politicians more likely to keep their promises after the ballots are cast.

Joking aside, election promises and actual policies have become disassociated enough that it isn't unusual for the incumbent reigning party to base their election platform on pervasive change promises without apparent alienation of voters.

So it's really up to the ruling class to do what they want. The referendum just provides scenery for that.


Parliament of course is sovereign and could absolutely ignore the vote.

But that would be "unusually dangerous" in the Ghostbusters crossing the streams sense.

The problem with parliament defying the will of the people is that it would destroy the confidence of the electorate in the political system. In the 1920's, there was an (unjustified) belief in Germany that the Weimar government was illegitimate as a result of the "Stab in the Back" that ended the Great War. This was one of the factors precipitating the rise of Hitler.

Something similar (but hopefully less bloody) would likely play out in Britain. There would be lasting and sustained resentment at what would effectively be a coup by the "intelligentsia" of the big cities (who have reaped most of the rewards of EU membership) against the already angry lower middle/working class (who have not due to immigration competition for scarce jobs). This would provide grist for the mill of every wannabe demagogue playing the "you was robbed and it's all 's fault!"

The main difference being that (unlike in the 1920s), the "Stab in the Back" would in fact be quite real and blatant.

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