In following the ongoing Brexit drama I've seen claims that the first vote was unfair because it was only for yes/no and didn't say anything about what form an actual Brexit would take. This uncertainty obviously makes it hard for the British leadership to negotiate with the EU, since they don't know what their electorate actually wants.

Why doesn't the UK hold a second referendum to clarify what the electorate wants? The second referendum does not have to ask the same question as the first (leave/remain), but could ask for example whether the country should accept a hard Brexit if the EU refuses to compromise, or what areas it desires Theresa May to focus on most (e.g. trade, immigration, Northern Ireland, etc).

Edit: six months on, the UK parliament has held votes on what I had in mind. Questions such as "customs union with EU?", "Common market 2.0?" and "Second stay/leave referendum?" are all yes/no questions that can be answered by a referendum.

  • 5
    Seems like the "Leave" side would see this as the losing side wanting a second chance to reverse the decision. If "Remain" won the second time, would they agree to a third referendum on the grounds of "best 2 out of 3"? Not likely. Perhaps something like a series of caucuses or conventions would be more appropriate if you want to discover the public's mind, rather than another yes/no referendum.
    – user15103
    Commented Nov 2, 2018 at 3:24
  • Well a second referendum doesn't have to be about leave/remain, it could be able what terms to negotiate for.
    – Allure
    Commented Nov 2, 2018 at 3:38
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    @Allure it is much too late to specify the terms to negotiate for, the only possible choices would be "current deal", "no deal" or "remain". And there is absolutely no way to obtain a coherent list of terms by asking 47million people "what do you want?"
    – Jontia
    Commented Nov 2, 2018 at 9:50
  • 2
    See also this answer about multi-way choices in voting: politics.stackexchange.com/a/34721/13141 Commented Nov 2, 2018 at 9:52
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    @Allure still, a referendum is a yes/no, up/down kind of thing, with the questions specified in advance. If you really want to find out what the electorate really wants, you need to allow the voters to frame the question(s) before voting. Perhaps in some kind of caucus or convention.
    – user15103
    Commented Nov 2, 2018 at 13:47

6 Answers 6


Ask 100 different leave votes (even leaving out remain) what they wanted from Brexit and you'll get 100 different answers. This underlines the folly of using Referenda for complex decisions as was highlighted by Ken Clarke before the Brexit vote.

Politics Home

“Referendums have never settled anything. Unless they're backed by a powerful dictator in the case of Mussolini or Napoleon,”

Despite the widely discredited claims made during the campaign like the £350m Bus

"I am surprised and disappointed that you have chosen to repeat the figure of £350m per week, in connection with the amount that might be available for extra public spending when we leave the European Union." "It is a clear misuse of official statistics," Sir David added in his brief note.

and potentially illegal campaign funding Arron Banks, a substantial number of people are still unwilling to reexamine the situation. They no longer acknowledge that

If a democracy cannot change its mind, it ceases to be a democracy. - David Davis

The whole negotiation process has charitably been rushed and mishandled. The referendum campaign included no clear idea what leave actually meant, and those responsible for the promises made during that campaign have repeatedly run away from any responsibility for actually delivering them.

The UK could have a second referendum once the details of the deal were on the table. It is unlikely that it will, simply because of the cost to the political careers of senior government figures. It is a decision taken in the best interests of party leaders, not the country.

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    I don't understand the first quote (about Mussolini and Napoleon). What does it mean?
    – Taladris
    Commented Nov 2, 2018 at 10:22
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    You'd have to ask Ken Clarke to be certain, but the remainder of the interview in the linked article makes clear that no one is ever happy with the outcome of a referendum. Brexit, Scots Independence and the UK joining the EU all had people lining up to reject the result as soon as they happened. Indeed in the case of Brexit, Nigel Farage was lining up to oppose the result before it even came in. independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/… The quote suggests only dictatorial leadership after a vote can mke people accept it
    – Jontia
    Commented Nov 2, 2018 at 10:25

First, holding a second referendum for Leave/Remain would be a clear denial of democratic choice and a bad signal for future referendums:

  • Once the majority has chosen, everybody will suffer the consequences. That means that everyone has the same interest: working so the consequences of this choice will be the best for everyone.
  • If we could vote again each time the consequences appears to be worse than expected, then the referendum's loser would have an interest into pulling everything down. In my opinion this is what is happening today: some people against Brexit (European side and British side) may want to show the Leave side that it was a bad choice, so they regret it and ask for a second chance.

Then, holding a referendum about the terms of the negotiation would be very difficult. There is no clear line between hard and soft Brexit:

  • For some people, the immigration subject is more important than the economic one. For others it will be the control of the financial market. Nobody will really agree on what is a hard or soft Brexit. These words are used by journalists and politics to simplify complex and multiple political ideas.
  • Holding a referendum in oversimplified terms would be a disaster.
  • And a very simple thing: There is no possible negotiation if you already voted on the terms of negotiation...
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    I agree with all of this. I'd add one more: precedence - it would make an argument for a second Scottish referendum much stronger. Not something that the main UK parties would be in favour of.
    – Alex
    Commented Nov 2, 2018 at 12:23
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    It is also a "clear denial of democratic choice" to follow the result of a highly tainted referendum. @Alex I think you meant to type "precedent."
    – phoog
    Commented Nov 2, 2018 at 12:40
  • The choice the public could be given is between the current deal and a 'no deal' brexit. 'No deal' would end up in a very messy situation in Northern Ireland and it seems that very few wants to back the current deal (including some of the people who made the deal). Even the most optimistic 'Hail Mary referendum' requires a potential positive outcome, which that does not seem to be in this case.
    – Bent
    Commented Dec 12, 2018 at 17:50
  • [+] Good answer : "For some people, the immigration subject is more important than the economic one" : though I would like to comment that for some the immigration subject is the economic one, the national economy doesn't reflect the personal economic reality that much of the population experiences, many do expect to (eventually) be better off financially with more restricted employment markets (less immigration), they expect that to eventually result in higher wages.
    – Pelinore
    Commented Dec 27, 2018 at 15:27


One big issue to consider is timing. If now is the start of November 2018, there needs to be:

  1. Agreement on the idea of a second referendum

    There needs to be political will to hold a new referendum, which currently does not exist.

    • Let's assume this takes 1-2 months to change, so by the end of 2018.
  2. Legislation

    The 2016 referendum took 7 months to prepare, though this included a summer recess. Potentially some time could be saved by re-using work done for that referendum. However there are also numerous cases\allegations of spending irregularities including arguments over the spending rules, and the question or questions proposed this time far look more complex, so potentially the new referendum could take longer to prepare than for 2016.

    • Let's guess 7 months, like before
  3. Campaign and Vote

    The Electoral Commission have recommended there should be at least 6 months between legislation and polling day.

    • Let's assume this is allowed, to avoid allegations of unfairness

Then given the above the second referendum can take place at the start of February 2020. Only at that point you have the feedback desired to feed into the UK's negotiating strategy.


Division sows defeat

For a long time, nobody knew what the plan was for Brexit. It's hard to justify holding a second referendum when the plan for how to implement the results of the first one doesn't even exist.

Then Theresa May put forth a plan. And Parliament didn't like it. Had she wanted to, she might have put her weight behind a second referendum, saying 'I tried my best, it can't be done, are we sure we want to do this?'

But she didn't. Instead, Boris Johnson became the new Prime Minister. For awhile, both sides were equally paralyzed and nothing happened. Then a new election was held.

And in this election, Boris Johnson got all the pro-Brexit people to line up behind him and support his plan. No such thing happened to the folks who never wanted to leave. The main other party in the election was split, with some of its constituency supporting Brexit and other parts very opposed.

If someone had said "Vote for me, I'm the anti-Brexit candidate, I will hold a second referendum and then quit and call new elections" they might have united the anti-Brexit vote behind them.

Nobody did that, so the pro-Brexit forces were united, and the anti-Brexit forces were not. So the pro-Brexit forces won a decisive majority. They aren't going to hold a second referendum, because they ran on a platform of 'get Brexit done'.


Now that it's 2019 I can give an updated answer. We have just had another election in the UK with Labour offering to give that second referendum.

Based on the results and the reduced vote share Labour gained, I can hazzard that offering a second referendum was an unpopular proposal. The conservative partys slogan was "Get Brexit done" and part of their platform was that the results of the original referendum must be respected.

The conservatives won in a landslide, putting the option of a second referendum to rest for a long time. After the latest election results, it would be seen as very foolish to offer another referendum again, as all the pro Brexit voters would vote for the conservatives again.

The anti Brexit vote was split, and so there aren't enough votes to get that second referendum. I doubt it will be offered again soon, in light of the huge defeat Labour suffered.

  • independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/… Landslide Vs details as alluded to in the last paragraph. Assuming winning an election under fptp means the majority support you is inaccurate.
    – Jontia
    Commented Feb 16, 2023 at 11:38

Why doesn't the UK hold a second referendum to clarify what the electorate wants?

Because of the original referendum. Despite it being illegal and marred by misinformation it did show that there is a substantial part of the population who want some form of "split" with Europe. There is also a substantial part of the population that believes that a split with Europe is a very bad idea

Re-running the referendum isn't going to change this fundamental fault line in UK political opinion

The referendum result itself is not the real problem that the UK faces at the moment. It is the lack of compromise on both sides to find a moderate solution to the divided UK society we have

Having the referendum again would simply reinforce this division

  • love the down votes, it just proves my point
    – Vorsprung
    Commented Dec 29, 2019 at 21:00
  • I think the downvote is because your answer seems to assume that the referendum would be stay/leave, while the question effectively assumes the UK is leaving and asks about clarifying what else is wanted.
    – Allure
    Commented Dec 29, 2019 at 23:24
  • @Allure thanks for the comment. Perhaps I'm not being clear. As the OP points out, what Brexit is is unclear. Any attempt to clarify this question will now fail due to the polarisation in UK politics. Both sides want total victory
    – Vorsprung
    Commented Dec 30, 2019 at 9:49
  • Well, the question was asked in November 2018.
    – Allure
    Commented Dec 30, 2019 at 10:58
  • @Allure ...and the answer is still the same :)
    – Vorsprung
    Commented Dec 30, 2019 at 11:09

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