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.

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    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 Nov 2 '18 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 Nov 2 '18 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 Nov 2 '18 at 9:50
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    See also this answer about multi-way choices in voting: politics.stackexchange.com/a/34721/13141 – Paul Johnson Nov 2 '18 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 Nov 2 '18 at 13:47

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 Nov 2 '18 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 Nov 2 '18 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 Dec 12 '18 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 Dec 27 '18 at 15:27

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.

  • I don't understand the first quote (about Mussolini and Napoleon). What does it mean? – Taladris Nov 2 '18 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 Nov 2 '18 at 10:25


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.

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