Could the UK really hold another Brexit vote?

Thursday , February 15, 2018 - 4:31 AM

Amanda Erickson

(c) 2018, The Washington Post.

Could the United Kingdom hold a Brexit do-over?

That possibility seemed to worry Foreign Minister Boris Johnson, who warned in a speech Wednesday that a second referendum would be a “disastrous mistake” that would bring “another year of wrangling and turmoil and feuding in which the whole country would lose.”

Johnson’s comments come as calls for a new vote grow louder. Even Nigel Farage, architect of Brexit, has said “maybe, just maybe, I’m reaching the point of thinking we should have a second referendum.” (To be fair, Farage said a second vote in support would silence his critics once and for all.)

Most politicians, including Prime Minister Theresa May, oppose it. But if a second vote does happen, here is how it would work: First, a coalition of opposition parties backed by Tory lawmakers would have to propose a second vote. Then Parliament would have to vote to authorize the measure.

It sounds simple. But supporting a second vote is politically risky for Brexit supporters and detractors.

Pro-Brexit politicians worry that in a second referendum, the majority of voters would choose to remain with the European Union. Polls suggest that today, a majority of Britons would vote against Brexit. (But the margin is razor thin, and it is impossible to know what might happen if there was a second campaign and vote.)

Britain’s Conservative Party, which controls Parliament in a coalition with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, also worries that a second vote could create the kind of chaos that would almost inevitably lead to another general election, something May and her government could lose.

“Remain” politicians, meanwhile, think it would be nearly impossible to build a big enough coalition in Parliament to authorize the new vote. And if “Leave” did win again, it would be much harder for Britain to negotiate a gentle exit with the EU, one that lets Britain stay in the single market. That is a big priority for Remain voters at this point.

“It would take quite a political storm to create an opportunity for another referendum,” Kevin Featherstone, head of the European Institute at the London School of Economics, told the New York Times. “Both main parties are on record as opposing it.”

Also worth noting: It is not even totally clear that Britain could remain in the EU, even with a second vote. After all, the country invoked Article 50, launching the exit process. No other country has ever done that, and it is not clear that the process could be halted at this point.

Jolyon Maugham, a lawyer and supporter of a second referendum, told the New York Times that all 27 other members of the EU would have to agree that Britain could revoke its Article 50 invocation before that could move forward. Any country could block Britain’s return or - more likely - impose some kind of unacceptable condition. If that happened, Britain would have to make its case to the European Court of Justice.

“Both routes would require a real change of heart,” Maugham said. “If there is a change of heart, then it could definitely happen.”

Except. That political calculus could change this fall, when the British government and the EU will announce the terms of their “divorce.” If the public is unhappy with the deal - or even if not - politicians could vote to hold a referendum on whether to accept the terms.

Another possible route to a second vote: If the EU and May’s government fail to come to any kind of agreement and talks break down, Britain could be faced with a hard choice: hard Brexit, also known as “no deal.” That could significantly upend the political calculus and lead to a second vote.

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