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Analysis

Actually, there is time to put it to the people

by Nick Kent | 16.04.2019

MPs trying to avoid holding a new referendum keep claiming there isn’t enough time before October 31. There is, and they should use their energies to persuade other MPs to get on with securing one.

MPs desperate to avoid putting the shambles of Brexit back to the people claim there isn’t enough time to hold one. “Too bad the EU didn’t give us long enough,” runs their weaselly argument, “but we can’t hold a new referendum by October 31”. Well we can, even if we take the full 22 weeks that experts at University College London recommend.

Organising a referendum requires legislation to set the date, to approve the question and to make temporary changes in electoral law. Separate procedures concern the terms of the question, the setting up of the campaign groups on each side and ensuring sufficient time for the campaign.

Experts who have looked at this reckon 22 weeks is the minimum needed to get all this done. The BBC has shown that if we followed this timetable, legislation would need to start in Parliament by May 23 and the referendum would be held on October 24, a week before the currently planned exit day.

Part of the reason for the 22 weeks is uncertainty about how long it would take Parliament to pass the necessary law and the requirements of the Electoral Commission to test the proposed question (roughly 12 weeks) and to designate recognised campaign bodies (four weeks).

Pro-Europeans should want a new vote to be conducted fairly and with sufficient time to ensure the arguments of both sides are properly tested. Many of us think that we are in this mess precisely because that didn’t happen in 2016. But the long-winded timetables that have been suggested can be shortened.

Firstly, even hotly contested legislation can be passed in three or four weeks. After all, it only took seven days to pass the recent Act that postponed withdrawal from March 29. That for a new referendum would be relatively straightforward given that parts of the 2016 law could be re-used.

Secondly, the 12 weeks taken by the Electoral Commission to report on the question (as the law requires) could be shortened considerably as the law does not specify a time period but merely says that it should be done “as soon as reasonably practical” after the legislation is published.

Thirdly, the process of designating recognised campaign bodies could be done in parallel with other preparations. The important point here is that there is sufficient time for campaigning once the groups are approved; the law requires a minimum of four weeks but a longer period would be better.

In fact it would be possible to hold a referendum in about 16 or 17 weeks, as Paul Tyler has shown by splitting the legislation in two. A short two-clause “paving Bill” would allow the Electoral Commission to start work while the main legislation was still being considered.

When Theresa May wanted a general election in seven weeks in 2017, it proved possible to arrange. It ought to be possible to hold a referendum in 17 weeks, meaning it could be in late September or early October. The real problem is not law and procedure but a lack of political commitment to putting the Brexit issue back to the people.

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Edited by Luke Lythgoe

3 Responses to “Actually, there is time to put it to the people”

  • Also, the EU would almost certainly allow a further extension if it was needed to hold another referendum, so lack of time is no excuse.

  • A maximum of pressure should continue to be exerted on MP’s to call for a People’s Vote. The House of Commons having foolishly and irresponsibly delegated this decision on the EU to ” the People “, there is no other possible solution to the present deadlock in parliament. Clearly the government will fight such a decision tooth and nail as it makes nonsense of all their Brexit activities since 24th June 2016. One solution would be of course to propose a referendum with a choice between Mrs May’s deal and Remain as this would constitute less of a denial of government action on Brexit since 2016. Then I suppose that the government would have to recommend choosing Mrs May’s deal, possibly doing what Cameron did and give the cabinet a free vote.
    But what an incredible mess the Conservative Party has got itself and the country in. It does not deserve to survive.

  • Rest assured David, the Tory Party’s disintegration is accelerating rapidly.
    I’m expecting Theresa May will once again do something which will confound all her critics.
    Calling a general election is on the cards of course. But what about withdrawing Article 50? That would be a nice one.
    Don’t forget, Theresa’s got form here!