Prospects for an early General Election and a referendum on the terms of Brexit  

In the previous three posts in this series, I examined the Brexit legislative process, prospects for the EU negotiations, and the state of public opinion and Labour on Brexit. Lastly, what are the prospects for a referendum on the terms of any deal and an early General Election stemming from the ongoing Brexit crisis?

Nigel Farage recently toyed with the possibility of a ‘second’ referendum. Whilst ostensibly suggesting it might settle the Brexit debate for a generation, his real motivation is to have a referendum before the poor withdrawal deal being negotiated becomes obvious to a substantial majority of voters, and while the two largest parties maintain their ‘have your cake and eat it too’ support for Brexit. Some argue, perhaps even more importantly, that a referendum allows Farage another chance to be in the national spotlight, perhaps again as UKIP leader.

We should avoid reference to a ‘second’ referendum as it implies a lack of respect for a ‘democratic’ decision (the referendum’s flaws have been widely discussed elsewhere). Many might regard any parliamentary vote which reverses Brexit as an elitist stitch up. What the people have done, only they can undo. So only a referendum on the terms will have the necessary shared legitimacy to reverse Brexit.

We should not consider the defeat of our Amendment 120 of the EU (Withdrawal) Bill last December as the end of the matter. There will be other opportunities to legislate for a referendum on the terms, including during scrutiny of the EU (Withdrawal) Bill by the Lords before Easter and during scrutiny of the ‘EU (Withdrawal) Implementation Bill’ in the Autumn.

While we should continue calling for a referendum on the terms (with the option to stay), we should recall political process is less immediately appealing to voters than individual circumstances. We should continue to blame Brexit for the worsening austerity, deterioration in public services, inflation and squeezed living standards.

There are two possible scenarios which may result in a referendum on the terms before it would have to be convened in March 2019 (unless the UK and all EU27 member states agree to extend the Article 50 negotiations timeframe).

Another referendum will continue to be fiercely opposed by the Government. However, if public opinion turns overwhelmingly against Brexit and it becomes increasing apparent this Autumn the Government has negotiated a poor Brexit deal, some Tory MPs may regard a referendum as a way for the Government to save face (and their seats). Farage’s reappearance will add impetus for a referendum. One also cannot rule out Labour opportunistically coming on board late in the day (as Corbyn did just before one of the 2017 General Election leaders debates).

Secondly, a no deal scenario could prompt an economic and political crisis, potentially necessitating a General Election. In an excellent series, Michael Romberg argues Parliament could “call for a referendum instead of a general election. But I do not see it happening … Parties instinctively wish to fight elections – it is why they exist. Calling for a referendum risks being seen as being closet remainers.”  If we assume Labour wins a General Election (as many believe), they might settle for the Norway Plus option If Labour falls short of a majority, and forms a coalition possibly with ourselves, the chances of a referendum on the terms of a deal, with the option to remain, are greatly increased. We would argue it is easier and better to ‘stay with a say’ rather than ‘pay with no say’.

If a referendum on the terms of any deal does take place, we should be sanguine it can be won. In 2016, the Cameron government’s renegotiation was not credible. This time the Prime Minister will be associated with a bad Brexit deal and a deteriorating economy. Neither the Tories nor Labour has prepared the public for the trade offs and concessions that must be made in international negotiations. A greater public backlash is possible once it is more widely appreciated Brexit promises are either undeliverable or false – instead of Leaving saving us £350 million a week, Brexit is costing us £350 million a week

Leaders of any ‘Stay’ campaign will need to take on board the lessons of the 2016 referendum. They should make the positive cases for managed migration and how we can lead in the EU. EU citizens are essential to working in the NHS, picking produce in our fields, teaching in our universities, working as entrepreneurs and professionals etc. They enrich our culture and personal lives. They pay more in taxes than they take in benefits. Any problems associated with immigration should be addressed by adopting policies within our national control Leaders should also offer a positive vision for our deeper engagement in the EU where we can champion further liberalisation in services and the digital economy, both areas where the UK excels, and enhancing security by being at the heart of Europe.

Then there are events. In the run up to the 2016 referendum, the UK economy was doing well while growth in the EU27 was sluggish. Since the EU referendum the UK has moved from being the fastest to the slowest growing G7 economy. Furthermore, the EU27 has improved its collective response to migration and Eurozone challenges, both of which remain higher priorities than Brexit. In addition, the UK’s demographics are changing.

Lastly, in 2016 pro-European groups were very weak. For those of us involved in the wilderness years, it has been heartening to see #INTogether and a national, albeit flawed, Remain campaign formed in a short period of time. Hundreds of smaller groups have popped up since. Today pro-European groups are more organised, better funded and are gradually becoming more co-ordinated. However, there is still much be done, notably identifying a single high profile leader of an umbrella campaign.

Stopping Brexit is still possible. So do join the Liberal Democrat European Group (LDEG) and take part in our campaigns, write blogs, be active in social media, or help in any way you can. Brexiters want to take their country back, we Liberal Democrats want to take our country forward!


* Nick Hopkinson is South East representative, Liberal Democrat European Group (LDEG) and a former Director of Wilton Park, the Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office policy forum.

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This entry was posted in Europe / International and Op-eds.


  • If Nick Hopkinson you are expressing the views of the Liberal Democrat European Group and these views dominate a “Reject” campaign then we are doomed to lose again.

    Our European Group really should understand the problems of the EU and why a majority of British people rejected it. It would be counter-productive to talk about the benefits of migration. We need to talk about ending economic migration across the EU. We should not be supporting “liberalisation” we should be pushing the idea that the EU is a great vehicle for controlling big business.

    For six year nearly all politicians said there was no money for this or that. We as a party must be in the vanguard of rejecting this idea and our part in austerity. (We must have policies to provide everyone living in the UK with a home to live in and a job if they want them with an economic programme to provide them within 5 years.) We must have a programme of reform for the EU to transform it from an organisation which supports business to one which creates full employment across the whole EU and enables member state governments to achieve this and not demand they meet arbitrary national debt or deficit targets.

    And finally we need to reform the EU so every citizens understands there can be no more integration unless their own national parliament has agreed every detail.

  • I think the best argument / strategy will be to let Brexit happen, then campaign for a return in 5-10 years post-transition. Anything else would be seen as a denial of the referendum result by the elite, and wouldn’t be seen as a giving Brexit a fair chance to succeed/fail on its own terms.

  • May will not call an election unless she a) thinks she can win- very unlikely at the moment, or b) loses her majority through byelections or defections. No sign of that just yet. Neither good for lib dems just now. There’ll be a lot of tactical anti Tory votes for Corbyn to get the Tories out.

  • Arnold Kiel 16th Jan '18 - 3:23pm

    The dynamics between representative and direct democracy are peculiar and dangerous: since the referendum, Government pursues a policy without parliamentary majority. Therefore, May had to assemble her B-team to create a dysfunctional Brexit-cabinet, and Labour hardly has a C-team that is in support of the current direction. By not allowing a remain-position, Corbyn’s shadow-cabinet is his B-team.

    Currently, only the LibDems can harness all their talent.

    In essence, the bottom quartile of PMs run the country on both sides of the house. Therefore, a bad policy (Brexit) most MPs do not want is poorly executed, and undergoes no quality control by the silenced majority of sensible MPs.

    In practice, no further referendum will happen under this Government. They cannot allow it, because they would be unable to carry out a different referendum instruction. As a remain-result would by necessity trigger a new GE, it needs to come first. What campaign it on? Leave, Remain, Referendum? Or do GE-referendum-(GE, in case of mismatch?). A consitutional nightmare, and just 14 months time.

    Either you get a remain vote and some parliamentary majority to carry that out, assuming Labour comes around, or you would, again, have a populist, instructed, and uncommitted Parliament working at its worst for years.

    Mathematicians call this a overdetermined system, i.e. one where one equation has to be thrown out to come to a solution. If I had to choose between a functioning parliamentary democracy and the ideal of another (last) referendum, I would opt for the former.

  • A couple of points:

    The going rate for parliamentary by-elections seems to be 4 or 5 a year. If this rate is maintained in this parliament, and results go against the Tory/DUP combine, then a GE is just about conceivable before the March 2019 deadline. In which case, who knows…

    Secondly – my view – is that the referendum was won by Leave because it campaigned on a basis of passion and emotion, whereas Remain campaigned on economic logic. Emotion always wins over logic. If there is to be a second referendum than Remain must develop emotional reasons to stay; technical arguments on the cost/benefit of migrants won’t hack it.

  • As a party member I despair. The party must get off Brexit. Forget it for a few months. There are so many issues that we should be making the lead on. It is the same sort of mistaken reasoning that accompanied the party through the coalition, a failure to recognise that that train was taking us absolutely no-where and importantly to Get Off.
    Brexit does not matter in the minds of the average voter. Prices, Inflation, job losses, loss of real earnings, rents, available housing, revising University Education to 2 years courses, benefits do. Lets make our main approach on these.

  • teakes,

    Headlines in the press today

    Jacob Rees-Mogg to lead Tory eurosceptic MPs and ‘hold Government to account’ over Brexit :- Telegraph

    Subcontractors lay off staff as Carillion crisis spreads :- Guardian

    Jeremy Corbyn ‘too old to lead Labour into next election’, warn top shadow ministers :- Independent

    ‘If you voted to leave’ Redwood’s BRILLIANT point SHUTS DOWN Scottish MP’s Brexit argument :- Daily Express

    as to the rest headlining stories of neglected children in California and other human tragedies. So on a day when we have Carillion still Brexit won’t leave the front page. The Lib Dems can’t forget Brexit for the next few months for the very reason none of the other parties can either (much as Labour might try), because day after day it will dominate. Just a quick bet I suspect Thursday will be dominated by stories of the “Jungle” moving to Dover as a side effect of Brexit, but feel free to ignore it.

  • Theakes: “As a party member I despair. The party must get off Brexit. Forget it for a few months.”

    Neither the parliamentary timetable nor the news cycle will not allow us to forget about Brexit for a few months.

    And, as a party member I only joined because , as far as I could see, LD is the only party capable of capturing the support of the 48%. So far we have failed to do so.

  • Frankie: you make my point. The average VOTER is not worried about the Westminster bubble or Brexit, these stories are irrelevant to them, they have bigger immediate issues to fry. Hence we should be changing our tack.

  • I’d personally prefer a referendum to a General Election. If either occurs the issue might be how it is manipulated to give the Conservatives what they want. Unless we stick to only the people can reverse what the people decided, we run the risk of being side-lined.

  • David Allen 17th Jan '18 - 1:38pm


    What many voters want is a reassuring fairy story along the lines of St George slaying the evil dragon. Labour have duly offered Corbyn as St George, slaying the evil dragon of austerity using fairy tale economics. They have cornered the market for fairy stories.

    What many other voters want is a satisfyingly vicious story of revenge against the evil enemy who has made them losers in life. Foreigners have been identified as that enemy, and Brexit has been developed as the perfect vehicle for a fantasy of revenge. (Of course it won’t work – that the whole point – it’s a fantasy!) UKIP, and following them the Tories, have cornered the market for revenge fantasies.

    We can’t compete with the fantasists. Eventually the real world will bite back, and punish the people who tried to make a living in fantasy land. Brexit will dominate the news agenda, probably for decades to come. Let’s be part of the real news!

  • OnceALibDem 17th Jan '18 - 3:48pm

    @Stephen Johnson – you can’t have a multi choice refendum like that as there is a real change it produces an ambiguous result. Eg:
    30% The Deal as proposed by the Government
    20% A ‘No deal’/WTO exit.
    25% Further negotiations with Brussels
    25% No Brexit (ie Remain)

    In any case further negotiations is very unlikely to be an option when a deal is agreed.

  • John Marriott 17th Jan '18 - 6:32pm

    Oh no, not another anti Brexit story. There are a lot more things to worry about, especially as we really don’t know yet how things will turn out. The time to get worried is when or if the economy tanks, unemployment goes through the stratosphere and there is a run on the pound. You should remember what things were like in the middle and late1970s. Now that was, for many of us, who lived through it, only a couple of steps away from Armageddon. Or at least it felt like it. Let’s get on with those negotiations. “Ce será, será!”

  • Katharine Pindar 18th Jan '18 - 1:02pm

    That is a lovely way to put the situation regarding the Referendum vote, David Allen, and has a good deal of truth in it! As regards the new one that we want, I like the way Stephen keeps plugging his ‘advisory’ multi-choice referendum; it would have to be only advisory because of the difficulties OnceALibDem points out, so rather a complex idea for the voters, but surely worth discussing.

    Michael BG suggests we should be supporting the EU to promote full employment by restraining big business and ending economic migration across the continent. I like that outlook on the EU migration question, together with Michael’s emphasis on the aim we should have for everyone here to be able to have a job and a home. There should be active interventionism both at home and in the EU, not laissez-faire economics.

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