How long would it take to organise a new Brexit referendum?

With exit day less than seven months away, one of the perceived obstacles to a second Brexit referendum is time. Jess Sargeant, Alan Renwick and Meg Russell (UCL Constitution Unit) discuss the constraints, concluding a new referendum could be held much more quickly than previous polls but a delay to exit day would most likely still be needed.

One of the practical obstacles faced by the campaign for a second referendum on leaving the EU is the view that it cannot be held before the planned Brexit date of 29 March. That means that if the UK is to hold another referendum, it will have to apply to extend the Article 50 deadline.

But why does it take so long to hold a new referendum? Why did the Constitution Unit at UCL estimate that it would take six months? Surely the process could be speeded up in what is, after all, a national emergency?

The short answer is that a lot of rules for the conduct of referendums were invented for the 2011 referendum on the voting system and for the 2016 EU referendum – the first national referendums since the first ever in 1975, which confirmed our membership of the European Economic Community.

Many of these rules are about allowing time for the independent Electoral Commission to consult people about the wording of the question, for parliament to scrutinise the legislation for the referendum, and finally for the referendum campaign itself.

Of course it would be possible to shorten all the periods in which these things had to be done. After all, the Greeks managed to hold a referendum on the EU bailout in 2015 in just eight days. What was striking was how little controversy there was about that vote, even after the Greek government later accepted a bailout deal which in many respects was worse than the one rejected in the referendum.

Compare that with the continuous dispute about the 2016 UK referendum, supposedly conducted to the highest possible democratic standards.

The real problem, however, is that a new referendum in the UK today is a controversial idea and it would be hard to get the legislation needed to hold it through a hung parliament.

Normally, legislation has to be proposed by the government. It may be possible to force Theresa May into proposing a referendum, if the House of Commons voted for it; but if the prime minister refused to do so, it might even be possible for parliament to change the rules to allow a committee of MPs to propose a bill for a referendum.

That is what lies behind recent headlines about the House of Commons “taking back control” of the parliamentary agenda from the government.

But even if a bill for a referendum could be introduced, it would take time to get it through parliament because it would be so controversial. There would be arguments about the wording of the question, and every aspect of the rules. In a House of Commons where no party has a majority it would be hard to control the timetable.

And that is before the bill even goes to the House of Lords, where the timetable is even more difficult to control, especially for legislation that was not contained in the governing party’s manifesto.

So what do you think?

Tell us in the comments.

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