As part of a now-rejected deal with the Labour party, Theresa May seemed to open the door to a second Brexit referendum.

Theresa May made her final big gamble as prime minister on Tuesday, offering Labour a “new deal” that included the possibility of a second EU referendum in what she claimed was “the last chance” to deliver Brexit.


The most ambitious part of her offer involved plans to give MPs a vote on whether to hold a second Brexit referendum to approve a final deal. She said she would respect the result.

Why did she do that? What was her gain in proposing such a gamble, and how does it fulfill her will to deliver Brexit?

  • 29
    Tinfoil hat: not delivering Brexit was always the plan. She just had to spend two years wearing down enough people's desire to Brexit before calling it off to avoid the next PM actually carrying it out
    – Caleth
    May 22, 2019 at 9:48
  • 3
    FT links require subsription. An open source would be a better link or pulling the key points into the question itself.
    – Jontia
    May 22, 2019 at 9:53
  • 1
    @Jontia Done, though I simply googled it and followed the link from a paper with the best authority in my view, without having any FT subscription. May 22, 2019 at 9:59
  • 1
    @OlivierGrégoire most likely I've hit my limit on following FT links and they now want my cash before giving me more insight.
    – Jontia
    May 22, 2019 at 10:01

4 Answers 4


Uncharitably, Theresa May's latest offer is smoke and mirrors rather than any actual change.

The PM's latest plan is to offer votes on a second referendum and a customs union after the Withdrawal bill has been passed. Crucially, she is not including any second referendum as part of the Withdrawal bill itself.

Leader of the Liberal Democrats, Sir Vince Cable, echoed the point, telling Today: "If [Mrs May] said 'we will put forward the Withdrawal Bill subject to a confirmatory referendum'… we would be obliged to support it on that basis, but she is barely saying Parliament can have a vote if it wants to have a referendum.

"[That] is not in her gift, Parliament will do that anyway. What appears to be a concession isn't."

The BBC Article, that the above quote comes from includes statements from Labour re-iterating that these offers basically allow what MPs can do without government support via the amendment process.

It appears this 4th Bill is an attempt to get both sides on board by telling Leavers that the bill doesn't really include a 2nd referendum and telling Remainers that it does.

  • It's also worth noting that every vote on a path to a second referendum has been soundly defeated by Parliament in the past few months - she knows that if she dangles a separate vote on a second referendum as a reward for passing the Withdrawl bill, she's safe as the referendum vote will never ever pass. So, completely smoke and mirrors.
    – user16741
    May 23, 2019 at 2:20
  • @Moo you're right, nothing so far from No-deal to 2nd Ref has pulled a majority in Parliament. Two pieces together, such as deal + ref might, but this offer isn't that. Which is Vince Cable's point.
    – Jontia
    May 23, 2019 at 5:45
  • @Jontia yup, but she's never going to guarantee a second referendum, she's spoken out against that very option on many occasion and bundling it with the bill would go against her previous position, so she won't do it. I fully expect any amendment to the bill adding a second referendum will be defeated, and then it's anyone's guess as to what happens to the bill itself. But it's almost certain at this point in time that it will take an act of God herself to cause a second referendum, not mere mortals that sit in Parliament!
    – user16741
    May 23, 2019 at 5:51
  • @Moo she spoke out many times against a snap General Election too. But on this occasion I think you are right.
    – Jontia
    May 23, 2019 at 6:14
  • @Jontia she's a bad PM, what else can I say? 😄
    – user16741
    May 23, 2019 at 6:16

(I'm turning my comment on Jontia's answer into an answer in itself, not because I think Jontia's answer is wrong, but because I think it doesn't fully explain what's going on.)

Theresa May is dangling the offer of a Parliamentary vote on a second referendum (or 'confirmatory referendum' as some liken it) if Parliament votes through her Withdrawal Agreement Bill when it comes before them.

Many members of Parliament wanted a second referendum to be part of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill, but instead it's being offered as a conditional second vote.

Why? Because Theresa May knows it will not pass as a vote in its own right.

Each time such a consideration has been voted on in Parliament in the past few months, it has been defeated - firstly a number of times as an amendment (14th March, amendment (h) defeated 334-85 for example), and then twice during the "meaningful votes" debacle:

  • 27 March 2019, proposition by Margaret Beckett, "Referendum on the Withdrawal Agreement" was defeated 295-268

  • 1 April 2019, proposition by Peter Kyle and Phil Wilson, "hold a Confirmatory Public Vote" was defeated 292-280

As Jontia says, it's smoke and mirrors - she is hoping that the prospect of a vote on a second referendum is enough to gain votes to pass the Withdrawal Agreement Bill whilst knowing she is taking a very small gamble on the second referendum vote.

  • 1
    How safe is a 292-280 margin though? Just seven flips to pass.
    – JollyJoker
    May 23, 2019 at 11:27
  • 2
    @JollyJoker 292-280 includes a significant number of no-shows. On an actual vote rather than an indicative one that the Government already signalled it felt able to ignore I would expect most of the missing 70 MPs to show up.
    – Jontia
    May 23, 2019 at 11:37

Because it costs her nothing and concedes nothing, though her party doesn’t seem to realise that. The Bill at its third reading in the Commons would certainly have had an amendment proposed to require a third referendum (not second; the referendum in 2016 was the second one on the subject), which would have been put to a vote. So there’s no way she could not have a vote on a third referendum. A genuine concession would have been to offer to make the referendum an essential part of the Bill rather than an optional add-on, and have a three-line whip requiring Tory MPs to vote in favour.


A second referendum could very easily produce Brexit in the most painless way.

Have a second referendum, binding this time, with two questions:

  1. Do you want to leave the EU or remain in the EU?

  2. If the majority votes to leave the EU, do you want to leave with May's deal or without a deal?

Do the referendum, count the votes, and then she can do within days whatever the referendum asked for. The next logical step would be say two weeks time for all parties to sort out their leadership, followed by an election.

  • 16
    Many would argue that nothing about this whole debacle has been, or ever will be, "painless"... May 22, 2019 at 16:39
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    @SteveMelnikoff Where "most painless" equals "least agonising, damaging and drawn-out", I guess. If I've got a choice between losing a body part either to a surgeon or to Mad Jack MacChainsaw and his blood-crazed ferrets, I'll reluctantly be talking to the surgeon.
    – Graham
    May 22, 2019 at 21:28
  • 1
    And if the result is "with a deal", what is the deal? And back to square one... May 23, 2019 at 10:42
  • 3
    @SteveSmith while I don't want to turn this into a debate, gnasher's answer says explicitly that "with a deal" means the current Withdrawal Agreement or "May's deal". Admittedly there huge amounts of future relationship that isn't part of that deal, but that appears to be largely forgotten by parliament and the public at large at this point.
    – Jontia
    May 23, 2019 at 11:40

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