At the moment (Sept. 2018) there's a discussion in the UK whether there should be a "second referendum" on Brexit. In the media there's already a discussion how people would vote. But upon what would they vote?

The initial referendum was fairly clear. Should the UK leave the EU, following the Article 50 procedure? This was an option that was available to the UK, as it is a sovereign country. Parliament could decide, and therefore Parliament could also decide to ask the voters.

Today however the UK has committed itself to leave the EU by March 2019. There are discussions over the exact terms of a secession agreement. But if no agreement could be reached, a no-deal Brexit would happen.

This gives one possible interpretation of the "Second Referendum" - is the proposed EU-UK agreement acceptable, or should the UK choose for a no-deal Brexit? This is of course only possible if there's a proposed agreement in the first place. Voting on "Chequers" (May's current idea of Brexit) is pointless, as the EU already turned it down.

Or would the "Second Referendum" instead be the same choice between Remain and Leave? Media polls seem to suggest this, but I don't see how this is an option. The UK cannot stop Brexit anymore, not even if 60% of voters would want to remain. It's the EU which would have to stop Brexit, and do so unanimously. And that seems beyond farfetched, with the current internal strife (Poland and Hungary at the brink of losing their vote, Italy being annoyed at the other 26 not taking refugees, Greece still sore from the bailout).

Or am I overlooking a third option? Is there some other Brexit matter where the UK can and must make a yes-or-no choice?

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    The procedure (article 50) was not mentioned on the ballot question: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… Commented Sep 26, 2018 at 0:36
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    And regarding "must", there was nothing that mandated the first referendum either. It was political choice to hold it; the UK government/parliament could have legally Brexited (invoked article 50) without any referendum. There was a supreme court decision that the gov't had to ask parliament's approval though: theguardian.com/politics/2017/jan/24/… Commented Sep 26, 2018 at 0:43
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    ...and that seems beyond farfetched..., plenty of EU countries have said they would still prefer the UK to remain a member of the EU, both the countries with strongly pro-federalist governments (France) and the ones that are highly skeptical of EU federalism (Visegrad group), as the latter see in the UK an ally against an EU getting too much power, which only works if the UK is inside the EU. I don't think it's farfetched at all that all other countries agree if the UK asks to postpone or cancels Brexit (although there will be some annoying "you've been wasting our time" voices).
    – gerrit
    Commented Sep 26, 2018 at 10:53
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    @MSalters Sure, they might play politics and try to use the situation to reduce the UKs discount or other aspects of its special status, but ultimately I do think the EU27 really do prefer the UK to remain in the EU. It may not be trivial, but I don't think it's "beyond farfetched" either.
    – gerrit
    Commented Sep 26, 2018 at 11:20
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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – yannis
    Commented Sep 27, 2018 at 8:14

6 Answers 6


As of September 2018, the answer is that nobody knows.

A first unknown is whether there will be a deal to vote on. Clearly, if there is no deal, then "accept the deal" can't be on the ballot paper. A second unknown is whether, having triggered Article 50, the UK can unilaterally untrigger it - though EU leaders have said on several occasions that they would accept the UK back regardless.

Under the terms of the European Union Withdrawal Agreement (Public Vote) Bill 2017-19, the question would be to either accept the deal or to remain in the EU.

John MacDonnell, shadow chancellor, said (without endorsing the idea) that any second referendum should assume the result of the first, and that the question should thus be whether to accept the deal, or reject it and leave with no deal.

Meanwhile, Justine Greening, former Education Secretary, has advocated a three-way vote with preference voting.

Finally, clearly if there is no deal to vote on - perhaps the least implausible scenario that leads to a second referendum - the only possible choice would be whether to remain in the EU or leave with no deal.

The point I think is that the choice of question depends on the circumstances in which the referendum is called - who calls it and why. Most of the campaigners in favour at this point are disappointed remainers, who will endorse versions that have a remain option and don't necessarily care which leave options are available. But if it's called by the pro-Brexit side, the deal or no deal version would seem more likely.

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    "don't necessarily care which leave options are available" It seems to me that most Remainers have a strong preference for Norway/Canada+ etc. over Chequers and for Chequers over No Deal. Commented Sep 25, 2018 at 20:22
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    Yes, OK - but that only really applies if the referendum includes two different deals, which would seem unlikely even if we assume a referendum. It's not that remainers don't care what Brexit looks like, more that when it comes to a referendum, the important thing for them is that "remain" is on the ballot.
    – Hedgehog
    Commented Sep 25, 2018 at 20:39
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    One of the things the British side seems to forget is that they can't just decide this themselves. The EU can reject or accept any proposed Brexit terms and member states have to vote as well. Even if the UK had a referendum and voted to stay in the EU, it's not at all certain that EU law allows that now that article 50 has been invoked. The whole problem with Brexit is that it was an idea without a proper plan, and it still has no plan and no one in the UK can agree what the goal is, let alone the details. And that's ignoring the EU, which you can't. Chaos reigns. Commented Sep 26, 2018 at 7:06
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    @Hedgehog - the question of whether the UK can unilaterally revoke Article 50 (untrigger Brexit, so to speak) is currently with the European Courts of Justice
    – walrus
    Commented Sep 26, 2018 at 8:36
  • Note that the EUWA(PV) Bill is a private member's bill without government support, so is unlikely to ever become law...at least without something major happening. Commented Sep 26, 2018 at 9:41

Second referendum in general

Or would the "Second Referendum" instead be the same choice between Remain and Leave? Media polls seem to suggest this, but I don't see how this is an option.

Any such referendum is internal British politics. They are to instruct (even though the second referendum, like the first, probably won't be binding) British politicians on how to proceed.

If the majority of people now voted to remain, then British politicians can (this is possible for sure) follow that instruction by changing their negotiation position to maintain as much regulatory alignment. Additionally, they can try to negotiate with the EU to cancel its exit all together (if this is possible depends on the EU and its rules). Alternatively, they may try to negotiate a reentry (though that would be complicated because the EU has strict requirements for becoming a member).

Existing solutions seen in other countries

This is of course only possible if there's a proposed agreement in the first place.

Since it's just instructing British politicians what to (try to) negotiate, they could just pick another country and try to get the same relation with the EU as they have. The Express uses this diagram: enter image description here

Theoretically, these could all be options in the referendum. Basically, any of these options indicate a balance between alignment and divergence from the EU. That doesn't mean these options could be copied 1:1 and be agreed upon, but they can serve as a basis for negotiation by the UK (without breaking EU rules, because similar deals already exist between the EU and other countries).

On interpreting the diagram

The diagram illustrates existing arrangements between the EU and other countries. The more to the left in the diagram, the more integrated the country is with the EU and its policies. Being more to the right indicates a country less integrated with the EU.

The first option is being an EU member, which is the most integrated with the EU a country can be (this option is quite obvious). Underneath the EU flag it indicates a red line, which means that red line prevents this option from being feasible. Indeed, 'UK leaves EU' means it cannot also be a member of the EU.

The second option is a Norway-style deal. Norway is not a member of the EU, but it does accept ECJ jurisdiction, free movement of workers, substantial financial contributions and it does not have regulatory autonomy. If the UK does not accept one or more of these restrictions then the Norway-style deal is off the table.

The third option is the Swiss-style deal. This deal still requires free movement, a substantial financial contribution and does not allow for regulatory autonomy. The difference with the Norway-style deal is that there is no ECJ jurisdiction. Instead, there is another mechanism in place (this is quite complicated, this article by the Guardian touches on that).

Going further to the right, the options can be read in the same way. At the very right there is a line saying no deal. This means that if the UK does not accept any type of concession then a deal is not possible at all.

Speculation on a second referendum

As Hedgehog points out, the contents of a (possible) second referendum are not clear (yet). In that answer, it's pointed out that a high-ranking Labour politician argues the result of the first referendum should be assumed. On the other hand, others within the Labour party have suggested not ruling out remain as an option.

The PM wrote a column earlier this month stating clearly: "There will be no second referendum on Brexit – it would be a gross betrayal of our democracy".

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    Your nice diagram (as usual for the UK politics) mostly ignores the GFA. Commented Sep 26, 2018 at 13:19
  • You suggest a referendum that directs the government towards a negotiation goal (as you say, it's internal on how to proceed). It's a great idea, but I'd like you to expand on whether you think it's likely we could get an Article 50 extension for this. We've been offered a chance to extend if we're going to make a public decision, but my understanding is it's too late to have one to just pick a direction. For example, if we all picked the Canada Flag, that would change nothing, because, as a cookie-cutter-ready-for-agreement option, it doesn't exist.
    – Nathan
    Commented Sep 26, 2018 at 15:43
  • @NathanCooper my answer is based on the premise that there is a second referendum. In practice I don't see that happen under PM May. As for a possible article 50 extension, that's pure speculation. It has to be agreed unanimously by the EU27, it's possible but not a given.
    – JJJ
    Commented Sep 26, 2018 at 15:57
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    @MartinSchröder true, the third countries in the diagram don't have that complication. I think some options have been discussed (sea border, hard border, customs union) have been discussed (not in my answer but in general). Some of those may or may not be compatible with the options in the diagram.
    – JJJ
    Commented Sep 26, 2018 at 16:03
  • I've seen that diagram before, and I still have no idea what it's depicting. Commented Sep 28, 2018 at 21:45

Possible options include:

  • The UK should leave the EU with no deal.
  • The UK should accept whatever deal the government gets.
  • The UK should ask for an extension and try to negotiate a better deal.
  • The UK should accept a "Norway Deal" as offered by the EU.
  • The UK should remain in the EU.

Obviously some of these can't be asked under certain circumstances, such as the UK government failing to get any deal.

There is also the issue of balance. The question would have to be approved by the Electoral Commission which would be looking to ensure that it is fair, so for example having two options for leaving and one for remaining would likely split the leave vote and be unacceptable. So for practical reasons two opposing positions would have to be selected.

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    A PR system could be used to avoid needing two answers. Vote in other of preference. Each round of counting the lowest gets eliminated and its votes distributed to the various 2nd choices (or 3rd/4th if 2nd has also been eliminated). Allows us to see if the relatively few voting for say "Norway Deal" want to leave in some manner or would prefer to stay in the EU. Also if the leave vote is split it will eventually gather behind a more popular leave option by the final round
    – Christy
    Commented Sep 26, 2018 at 9:04
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    PR could be used but wold likely be rejected because British voters are apparently too thick to understand it. The concept of anything more complex than first-past-the-post was rejected when the Alternative Vote was offered and they had an endless parade of idiots on TV proudly proclaiming that they didn't understand something the average 8 year old could easily grasp. Also the result would be "unclear" and easier to dispute. Shame because it's a good idea.
    – user
    Commented Sep 26, 2018 at 9:26
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    Not all British voters! PR-type systems are used for elections to the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and Greater London Assembly. Commented Sep 26, 2018 at 9:44
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    And the Northern Ireland assembly (when it sits) is elected with STV, and EU elections are run with D'Hondt. The electoral system is chosen to produce the outcomes favoured by the ruling party of the time, and the duopoly like having their FPTP system.
    – pjc50
    Commented Sep 26, 2018 at 9:47
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    As a meta comment on the comments, I'd suggest people stick with 'preferential' rather than 'PR'. You can't really have a proportionally representative deal.
    – origimbo
    Commented Sep 26, 2018 at 12:24

There's a cynical and a less cynical answer to that.

The cynical answer is that for the past maybe two decades, it has become more and more acceptable to repeat elections and referendums until the result is something that the politicians can manage. This has happened in national elections in EU countries many, many times in that period. If no ruling coalition can be formed, we get new elections instead of a minority government working with compromises to secure varying majorities.

The less cynical answer is that the situation is not the same now as it was immediately prior to the first referendum. There are a lot more details known and more clear choices are on the table. A referendum can present more specific choices with specific consequences. If the first referendum was picking your holiday destination, you've now checked flight and hotel prices and are considering again - which may include a change of destinations.


The Scottish Conservative Party proposes a two-question referendum, essentially asking:

  1. Do you want to leave the European Union or remain on existing terms?
  2. If you want to leave should we do so on the basis of the deal that has been agreed or leave without a deal?
  • Is this supposed to suggest that if you do not want to leave, you are not eligible to choose between the deal or no deal? Only "Leavers" can choose the type of Leave?
    – Jontia
    Commented Dec 17, 2018 at 14:14

As of mid December 2018, the EU has made it clear that the UK can withdraw from the withdrawal process. So the obvious choices are: (1) Remain or leave. (2) If the majority is for leave, leave with the current negotiated deal, or leave with no deal.

Hadn't noticed that the Scottish Conservative Party was quicker :-) But it is the only rational choice.

  • Or alternatively 1) If we leave do we do so with or without a deal. 2) Remain or Result of 1?
    – Jontia
    Commented Sep 16, 2019 at 11:59

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