The topic of a second referendum on Brexit has been discussed since the time of the first referendum. However, recently, there is a lot of talk in UK politics about a "confirmatory" referendum.

For example, the BBC news on 4 April 2019:

"Labour ordered its MPs to vote in favour of a "confirmatory referendum" on a Brexit deal, but [UK Labour party chairman] Mr Lavery abstained."

Or Chuka Umunna, of the newly-formed Independent Group of MPs, quoted in the Observer, 6 April 2019:

"...our support for a confirmatory People’s Vote is 100%."

My question is, is a "confirmatory" public vote just another word for a second referendum, or does the word "confirmatory" have a specific meaning, for example, in regards to what options would be on the ballot paper? In other words, would a confirmatory vote be different from a second referendum, or are they just different words for the same thing?

Additional information

Thanks to the useful hint from origimbo here, I was able to find the text of the two amendments that were voted on regarding the "confirmatory" vote. For reference, they are "Margaret Beckett's motion M (Confirmatory public vote)," defeated on 27 Mar by 295 votes to 268, and "Peter Kyle's motion E (Confirmatory public vote)," defeated on 1 Apr 2019 by 292 votes to 280. They both have identical text, which is as follows:

That this House will not allow in this Parliament the implementation and ratification of any withdrawal agreement and any framework for the future relationship unless and until they have been approved by the people of the United Kingdom in a confirmatory public vote.

This doesn't help much though, because it doesn't say explicitly what makes the vote a 'confirmatory' one.

Why this matters

The 'Confirmatory public vote' proposal (quoted above) has a couple of features that might differentiate it from any other referendum that might be held on Brexit. Firstly, it restricts what parliament can do (it can't implement and ratify a withdrawal agreement without the approval of the public, or at least, that's what it seems to say), but secondly, it doesn't specify what happens if the public doesn't approve the agreement. If the public votes no in such a referendum, it doesn't specify whether would that result in remaining in the EU, or whether would it result in leaving with no deal.

I suspect this ambiguity is deliberate, since it allows the idea to appeal to both hard brexiters (for whom a no deal exit might be the preferable option), as well as remainers (for whom staying in the EU would be the preferable option).

However, because of this, when someone says they support a "confirmatory vote", I am not sure if they mean "I support a referendum whose outcome is binding" or "I support a public vote, but not necessarily one in which remain is on the ballot." These are not mutually exclusive of course, but they are very different things. This why I'm after concrete information backed up with sources about what the word "confirmatory" is understood to mean, among the MPs in the British parliament who are making such statements.

  • 1
    This seems an obscure point of lawyering. Go ask on law.SE. Like I said, as far as I know there's no legal definition of "confirmatory". There is a political meaning derived from the contents of those motions. But you already know that. Apr 7, 2019 at 10:05
  • No it's not, it's an incredibly important point about politics. If the word "confirmatory" makes a difference to the questions on the ballot paper, then it will make an enormous difference to the probably-a-million-plus people who marched in favour of a second referendum the other weekend. (And also to the people who marched against one, for that matter.)
    – N. Virgo
    Apr 7, 2019 at 10:08
  • 1
    ??????????? the tile of any law has no legal bearing on its provisions. It could be called "magical thinking referendum amendment" but ask to choose between no-deal and remain on the ballot. The Parliament is not holding a separate vote to define the meaning of "confirmatory" first. Apr 7, 2019 at 10:10
  • Again, I have no idea what you mean. I am just asking the meaning of a word, so that I can understand what exactly the MPs are voting on. You have said what you think it means, but without an authoritative source I am not sure if you are correct. I think that's the end of the conversation, isn't it?
    – N. Virgo
    Apr 7, 2019 at 10:13
  • The meaning is derived from context, since there is little precedent for its use otherwise. Is that really your question? LEGAL precedents binding the Parliament on the use of the word "confirmatory"?? There are none, and there can be none (Parliamentary supremacy). Apr 7, 2019 at 10:15

3 Answers 3


A "confirmatory" referendum is a vote on whether to accept or reject a detailed arrangement made by the government.

Compare the referendum of 1975. The Government made the decision to join the Common Market. The government negotiated the terms of entry in 1973 (There probably wasn't much discussion, as the terms were the treaty of Rome and subsequent treaties, on which there wasn't much room for flexibility). The decision was then approved by Parliament. A general election followed, and the Labour Party attempted a renegotiation of terms of membership and only then were the population consulted two years later in 1975. The intention of the vote was to either confirm or reject the completed negotiations of the Labour Government. (The real reason was to silence members of the Labour party left wing who were opposed to the principle of a Capitalist European union.)

The question on the ballot paper makes the "confirmatory" nature of the referendum clear

The Government has announced the results of the renegotiation of the United Kingdom's terms of membership of the European Community.

Do you think that the United Kingdom should stay in the European Community (the Common Market)?

Compare this question to the 2016 question, at which time there had been no negotiation of the nature of withdrawal or the future relationship.

Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?

There was no detailed agreement to approve or disapprove of. It was simply voting on the matter of principle. It had to be this way because negotiations of the withdrawal agreement could only happen after the triggering of the article 50 process, which could only happen after a decision in principle to leave. And that decision could only have come from a referendum, since there is no majority for leave in the government or parliament.


There is indeed a source of confusion here and it stems from retrofitting the "confirmatory" label to two previous legally binding referendums. This happened, as far as I can tell, along the lines of this speech :

Peter Kyle Labour, Hove

Last week, 268 Members voted for the principle of a confirmatory ballot—the largest number of votes for any alternative Brexit proposition up to that point. The principle has effectively been used twice in the past 20 years to solve complex, divisive issues.

The first occasion was on the Belfast or Good Friday agreement. Many people, institutions and organisations were asked to give a lot to cement the deal, but they gained a lot together despite sections of Northern Irish society strongly rejecting it. The Good Friday agreement was put to a confirmatory ballot that confirmed the deal and led to a decisive end to the arduous process and a peace that has endured to this day. I do not want to risk undoing those gains, which is another reason why we need to unlock our politics. [...]

The second occasion was the alternative vote referendum in 2011. [...] In the case of the Good Friday agreement, the matter was agreed. In the case of the AV referendum, it was rejected. However, the debate was settled instantly in both cases, as it would be in this case. There would be no return to Parliament, no more squabbling, no best of three, no “neverendum”, just a definitive end to the Brexit impasse

But neither the AV referendum nor the GFA one were called "confirmatory" before the Brexit debate, as far as I know. On the other hand they were legally binding. (For details the AV one see this question.)

So, really, there are two separate issues with respect to the "confirmatory" amendments insofar:

  • The referendum they propose would be legally binding.

  • Such a referendum is would also be ahem "confirmatory" in the common sense of the word, when you are asked to "confirm" some prior choice... more or less. (I guess "detaliatory" is not even a word.)

I think it's by brevity (and an unfortunate choice of language) that the legally binding confirmatory referendum proposal was mainly referred to as "confirmatory".

  • I don't remember the word "confirmatory" being used in regards to the AV referendum, and a Google search doesn't seem to turn anything up now.
    – N. Virgo
    Apr 7, 2019 at 9:30
  • @Nathaniel: the terminology is new because back then there was single referendum that was binding from the start. See also edit with quote. Apr 7, 2019 at 9:36
  • My intuition is that "confirmatory" doesn't refer to it being legally binding, but to to the public "confirming" the deal. I am really not sure though - I am looking for something that would make that unambiguous.
    – N. Virgo
    Apr 7, 2019 at 9:45
  • @Nathaniel: no, "confirmatory" doesn't have a legal definition as of yet. But read the "confirmatory referendum" proposal and compare it with the AV one. Apr 7, 2019 at 9:49
  • Do you have the text of the AV referendum "proposal" to hand? I have edited the text of the "confirmatory vote" amendment into my question. (It is not enlightening about the meaning of the word "confirmatory".)
    – N. Virgo
    Apr 7, 2019 at 9:54

a "confirmatory" referendum is a vote on whether to accept or reject a detailed arrangement made by the government "

Yes that is what it is , a vote on the Governments agreed deal on brexit with the EU . It is Labour that keeps moving the posts , why Labour started sprouting the word " Confirmatory " I have no idea , but they do , they could of just said , " put a vote to the people on the deal May brought back " , now there would be a problem if the people voted against it ( that’s after everyone reading the 500 + pages of the deal and understanding it to vote on it ) . I believe it is just a back door for Labour "who will not agree with whatever the May brought back" to get the people to vote yes and then out , or if they vote no stay in

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