Closely related to: What would be the subject of a second Brexit Referendum?

Currently, there is discussion about a possible second referendum fueled by Labour, and there seems to be the publicly voiced conception that Lord Kerr (who is regarded as being somewhat authorative) sees it perfectly possible that UK revokes its Article 50 notification, and this just works out.

In particular:

If, having looked into abyss, we changed our minds about withdrawal, we certainly could - and no-one in Brussels could stop us.

That's quite problematic, considering that not just the UK has looked into abyss, but the remaining states have as well. Even assuming it was technically possible to simply stop Brexit now, it couldn't possibly work that way practically, since it would serve as a precedent for copycats invoking Article 50 over and over again regularly, every time causing billions of damage to economy and causing a massive destabilization of the entire union, effectively being a means of blackmailing co-member states. So, from a purely practical point of view, this is actually not something that should be remotely possible.

Also, back in 2017, the EU Commission explicitly stated earlier the same day UK filed the notification that whether or not to give notification is everybody's discrete decision, but the notification is a do-once point-of-no-return thing. This was well-understood by all parties.
That point of view does seem to make sense, too. After all, invoking Article 50 and giving the notice is akin to telling your wife: "I slept with your sister, and now I want the divorce". You cannot take this back, once you said it.

Now, looking more closely and not taking one sentence out of context, it seems like Kerr himself indeed is not as absolutely positive about it as it may seem, either:

The European union is a union of democracies. If this Parliament asked – and our Government conveyed our request – for an extension, in my judgement it would certainly be given.

Now wait a moment. He said "ask", not "inform" or "tell". Ask implies the other side can say "no". Also, he said "extension", not "reversal". Also, extension would (likely) be given, in his judgement.
So that doesn't look quite as confident, and indeed suggests that UK cannot just unilaterally revoke Brexit. Or, at all.
Rather, it looks like they might kind of ask for mercy (sorry for the slightly provocative wording) and if the remaining member states decide so (which Kerr believes would happen) then an extension would be granted. Extension, not reversal. That's a totally different thing, altogether.

Time to look what's actually in that infamous Article 50. There is nothing in there that I can see which suggests it is possible to revoke at all. In my understanding, the wording, in particular sentence (3)

... failing that, two years after the notification [...] unless the European Council, in agreement with the Member State concerned, unanimously decides to extend this period

suggests exactly what Kerr expects in his second quote: The remaining states would have to decide, unanimously, that they're happy with granting an extension (...to the exit negotiation period). Assuming only a single member state disagrees, bad luck, the lights just go out end of March.
Of course, UK could, following Brexit, apply again to become a member state according to Article 49. Indeed, Article 50 explicitly states that. However, this obviously wouldn't just work, it would be subject to fulfilling all of the basic conditions, plus some. Also it would be subject to member states agreeing. Surely, member states would expect to get "paid" (one way or the other) for the economic damages they've had from the uncertainity caused by Brexit, it seems unlikely they'd just shrug and move on.


So, considering that a second referendum and attempting a full U-turn half a year before Day X would be most devastating in terms of credibility (both internally and externally), but also stopping the Brexit does not seem to be possible at all ("extension" does not mean the same as "reversal"), what would be the point in holding such a referendum in the first place?

In my opinion, at this point in time, it can only make things worse, not better.

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    This isn't a question but a rant with an implicit "Don't you agree?" at the end. Commented Sep 26, 2018 at 21:09

6 Answers 6


The initial Brexit referendum was flawed from the Leave-Campaign operating with false numbers and flat-out misinformation, e.g. the 350 million pounds for the NHS.

As the referendum concluded with a narrow win for the Leave side, there was/is no clear strategy on how to leave the EU, i.e. soft vs. hard Brexit. Theresa May's "Brexit means Brexit" is somewhat telling.

Thus, after the UK government negotiates with the EU on the conditions for leaving, the people finally learn what Brexit really means, apart from meaning Brexit.

So the point of a second referendum would be:

  • redress the flaw of the Leave Campaign winning by lies
  • let the population vote on an actual proposal, in contrast to the first referendum, which was on "Imagine your own, ideal Brexit"TM

IMO, the first point is the most pertinent, since no democracy can afford to let the people's trust in the validity of elections erode. If, there are cases of actual voting fraud, an election is very likely to be invalidated with the need to repeat the election. If, on the other hand, a campaign is caught blatantly lying, there should be similar repercussions.

When a campaign is able to win an election with lies, and afterwards fights a repetition of that very election by arguing that the repetition would undermine democracy. Then, the democracy, or the people's trust in democracy, takes damage.

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    As a secondary point to the above, the set of people entitled to vote in the referendum was considerably smaller than the set of people that would be affected by the decision. If you were a UK citizen but resident elsewhere in the EU, no vote. If you were an EU citizen resident in the UK, but not a UK citizen, no vote. There's also the principle that a major, irreversible, constitutional question like this should require a supermajority to enact, rather than only a plurality.
    – Chromatix
    Commented Oct 7, 2018 at 3:47
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    @Chromatix. I am a UK citizen resident elsewhere in the EU, and I voted. You had to be non-resident in the UK for 15 years to lose your vote. (You also omitted young people who will be affected for longest and couldn't vote.) Commented Nov 6, 2018 at 15:27

The EU and some individual member states have gone on record saying that Article 50 can be revoked. The author of Article 50 agrees (and he is British). So it can be stopped.

Even if stopping were not an option, there are other things that could be voted on.

  • Should whatever deal is done be accepted?
  • If not, should the government have to try to re-negotiate or just leave with no deal?
  • Stay in the Single Market and Customs Union (like Norway)
  • Join EFTA
  • Even if cancelling Article 50 is impossible, re-apply for membership during the transition period
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    Well, that author happens to be Lord Kerr. And as pointed out in the Q, he didn't quite say that, exactly. When did the EU state that Art 50 can be revoked? Do you have an official source?
    – Damon
    Commented Sep 26, 2018 at 12:23
  • @Damon, they haven't said it can, or that it can't. Yet. bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-scotland-politics-45601394
    – Jontia
    Commented Sep 26, 2018 at 15:57
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    Whether the EU will accept it being revoked is entirely a political question. They will just change any rule to suit whatever decision they make.
    – Simd
    Commented Oct 2, 2018 at 9:14
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    "Can be revoked" is totally different from "can be revoked by Britain alone without agreement from the (majority/all) EU states". Nobody doubted that it can be revoked.
    – Josef
    Commented Oct 16, 2018 at 11:44
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    Quote from The Independent: “Late last year, the European Court of Justice decided that the U.K. can revoke Article 50 (cancel Brexit).
    – gnasher729
    Commented Feb 17, 2019 at 23:04

The answer depends on your point of view.

If you want to Leave, there is no point in a second vote.

If you want to Remain, the point is that you might win the second time.

If you think this is overly cynical, look at the evidence. It's possible I've missed something, but I haven't seen a single Leave advocate who has argued for a second vote. And I know that before the first vote a lot of Remainers said the vote would be the first and only one. But I haven't seen any recent examples of a Remain advocate arguing forcefully against another vote.

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    This does not really answer the question: The Q is explicitly about what a (hypothetical) win for the Remain side would mean in practice - reversal of Art.50 invocation, new negotiations... .
    – sleske
    Commented Nov 26, 2018 at 10:20
  • Even if you want to leave, isn't a second referendum an opportunity that with current knowledge this is still the consensus?
    – JJJ
    Commented Feb 17, 2019 at 0:17
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    Otherwise known as a "loser's vote" or a "do-over"
    – Valorum
    Commented Feb 23, 2019 at 8:02
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    Actually before they won many leave voters are on record as saying they wanted another one. Of course that changed fast once they saw the result.
    – Tim B
    Commented Feb 24, 2019 at 11:49

From outside UK I believe that there are three possible outcomes of the Brexit process that could be asked about in a poll:

1) remain 2) leave without deal 3) accept the deal as it stands

The parliament and government seems to be hung between 2) and 3), so the democratic question would be to select between these two. The decision to leave has already been voted on, now it is only about the details.

But politics is not always ( or possibly seldom ) about logics.

  • The official line (from the UK) seems to be that negotiations are still going on for a new deal. It's highly disputed though, as foreignpolicy.com points out.
    – JJJ
    Commented Sep 15, 2019 at 11:40
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    Now that how it actually can be done becomes known and the blatant lies are exposed, assuming that nobody thinks it was a bad idea from the start, or just disregarding them out of hand, is pretty presumptuous. Commented Sep 15, 2019 at 21:38
  • To say that Parliment is stuck between 2 and 3 is to ignore most of the last 3 years. And the news of the last week. Such as Labour, LibDems SNP, which is pretty much what the Government has done for the whole Article 50 period.
    – Jontia
    Commented Sep 16, 2019 at 11:15
  • That's pathetic and dishonest. The referendum was 40 months ago. We had elections after 25 months, and Johnson wants another election after 28 months, so there is no sane reason not to have another referendum with the full choice of options.
    – gnasher729
    Commented Sep 16, 2019 at 21:41

I suppose if it is suspected that Russia influenced public opinion on Brexit, and they realize they've been deceived, then it might be better for the health of the UK and the EU to change their minds than to say "whelp, you tricked us, but I guess we have to follow through with the consequences of being tricked."

Articles suggesting a Russian propaganda involvement related to Brexit:

Support in the UK for Brexit has deteriorated since the initial vote, which I'd suspect correlates with increased knowledge of Russian interference, as well as the public becoming better-informed about the consequences of Brexit. A recent poll suggests that 54% of UK citizens want to remain in the EU and 46% want to exit. At the time of this article from May 2018, the results of 14 consecutive YouGov polls all reflected a preference to remain rather than exit.

Also, I believe the Brexit referendum was not precisely legally-binding. Although, it's complicated.

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    If these allegations are true, that would indeed be a valid reason to do a second referendum (but... in June 2017, not now). Though the allegations came from Cameron who was the very same person initiating the poll in the first place, so I'd say they're a bit dubious. I mean, first he initiates the poll, and then he says "Russians would be happy about a positive result". That being said, poll invalid or not, binding or not, having handed in the leave note is legally binding. Only "clean" way out might have been re-voting and revoking early as soon as allegations came up.
    – Damon
    Commented Sep 27, 2018 at 14:40
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    In that case, I could see how the EU might have said: "OK, looks like maybe you guys were tricked, and you changed mind on that base, so we will just ignore that you gave us notice". Maybe. Who knows. Would have been a possibility. But over one year after that, I can't see this being a valid argument any more.
    – Damon
    Commented Sep 27, 2018 at 14:42
  • UK referendums are historically uncommon, scotiparture and brexit are the only referendums that i recall from the previous 30 years. So, they are more of an exceptional measure, with a vague description in UK law. Other countries have clearer constitutional descriptions of referendums to predefine yes percentages, and other conditions necessary for various types of decisions. Commented Sep 27, 2018 at 16:44

A second EU referendum asks the same question as the first: Do you want to come out of the EU, A populist question which encourages a 50/50 result, by it's vague, nebulous, popular connotation.

A second referendum is therefore an exotic and somewhat illogical political process. It voids/reverses the result and the authenticity of the first referendum using the same question, some years later.

The point of promising another referendum shortly after the first, is a politician's election tool, to cater for foreign pressures that are opposed to the results of the first referendum, and obey international diplomatic pressure to reverse the result of the first referendum. The previous EEC / EU referendums of 1975 and 2016 were also election promises. The 2021 election promise is also a pledge by the opposing party leader.

Suppose that constitutional rights were subject to a referendum, and the referendum required 3 years to pass into law, and resulted in international diplomatic pressure and revenge policies against the nation that had the referendum, like trade wars, import export bans, travel restrictions...

Then, sufficient foreign diplomatic pressure would have been exerted on the nation that had voted in the referendum, so that a politician who accepted the referendum, decides that he has changed his mind, and wishes to negate the first referendum and to organize a second one.

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    Brexit was a political stunt, David Cameron wished to have a mock referendum which would give him popularity and not change the constitution... He could have instead made a referendum about border control, legal subjugation to Brussels, or something like that, but he knew that the british would heavily vote agaisnt foreign border control and legal subjugation, so he chose an unreasonable mock referendum, which unexpectedly came to pass. Commented Sep 26, 2018 at 15:55
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    I don't disagree, except it was less about popularity across the country than stopping the continual split in the Tory party along pro/anti-EU lines. The Referendum was supposed to leave DC in charge of a conservative party with one of its major causes of internal strife removed. And we can see how well that's worked out.
    – Jontia
    Commented Sep 26, 2018 at 16:00
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    "It voids the result and the authenticity of the first referendum." No, it doesn't. It's a key element of democracy that the sovereign is allowed to change its mind, especially when circumstances change (e.g. promises turn out to be unfullfillable). Same reasoning for having elections every 4-5 years instead of 40-50.
    – Annatar
    Commented Sep 28, 2018 at 11:06
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    The point of promising another referendum shortly after the first, is a politician's election tool, to cater for foreign pressures that are opposed to the results of the first referendum, and obey international diplomatic pressure to reverse the result of the first referendum, that sounds entirely wrong, and at very least needs to be backed up.
    – gerrit
    Commented Oct 1, 2018 at 11:35
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    @com.prehensible You give the best example yourself. The 2016 referendum over-ruled the 1975 referendum (which asked the exact same question, broadly speaking) and this is totally fine in a democracy.
    – Annatar
    Commented Oct 2, 2018 at 7:56

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