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Article 50, new referendum, elections: How do they work?

by Luke Lythgoe | 26.06.2016

The aftermath of the UK’s vote to leave the EU has led to much talk of complicated political procedures – a second referendum, leadership challenges, a general election and triggering Article 50. But how would all this work in practice?

Second referendum

At time of writing, over 3,269,000 people had signed a petition to hold a second EU referendum “if the remain or leave vote is less than 60% based a turnout less than 75%”. If over 100,000 people sign a petition, Parliament has to consider it for debate.

This petition, which was created before the vote, is likely to be debated. However, with the Conservatives and potentially Labour focused on kickstarting processes to replace their leaders before Parliament’s recess on July 21, the petition may not be debated until after the summer break. Even then, a debate will not result in a second referendum unless the government of the day wants one.

Conservative leadership

Cameron’s resignation means the Conservative Party must now elect a new leader. There is no timetable yet, but in his statement Cameron said there should be a new prime minister by the Conservative Party Conference in October.

Leadership elections are called by the 1922 Committee of Conservative backbench MPs, who will meet on Monday. The deadline for candidates to be nominated has not been set, except that it must end “at noon on a Thursday”. It is possible that this Thursday will be chosen.

If there is one nomination, that person is elected. If there are two, their names go straight to a vote by the general membership of the party across the country.

If there are three or more nominations, a secret ballot of the party’s 330 MPs eliminates the least popular candidate. There are as many rounds of voting as are required to cut the number of candidates to two. Ballots take place every Tuesday and Thursday, beginning the Tuesday after nominations close. The Conservatives will want to have two candidates selected before recess on July 21.

The two candidates are put to a postal vote on a “one member, one vote” basis. The closing date of the postal vote is agreed by the chair of the 1922 Committee, with the candidates campaigning in the meantime. The vote is open to Conservative Party members “of good standing” who have been members for at least three months before “immediately prior to the close of the ballot” (Schedule 2, Rule 5). Standard Conservative Party membership costs £25.

Labour leadership

A vote of no confidence in Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) was tabled the day after the referendum by MPs Margaret Hodge and Anne Coffey. A string of shadow cabinet ministers have quit and shadow foreign secretary, Hilary Benn, has been sacked. PLP chair John Cryer must now decide whether this should be debated on Monday, with a secret ballot possible on Tuesday.

A vote of no confidence is not a formal way of removing a Labour leader. A leadership contest can only take place if there is an open leadership challenge or a vacancy. But if PLP opposition to Corbyn is so great that he cannot put a shadow cabinet together, he may have no choice but to resign and trigger a new leadership contest anyway.

Nominations for candidates must first receive the support of 15% of Labour MPs – currently 35 of Labour’s 229. It is not obvious that Corbyn could gather that support, but his team have argued that he will be on the ballot automatically.

All candidates with the required support are then put to a vote by Labour Party members, affiliated supporters and registered supporters, on a “one member, one vote” basis. The vote is done by preferential ballot. If no candidate gets over 50% of the first preference votes, then votes are redistributed based on further preferences. Observers think Corbyn would win such a vote because of his strong grassroots support.

General election

The Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 means general elections are supposed to take place on the first Thursday in May of every fifth year, the next scheduled for May 7, 2020.

However, in the turmoil after the EU referendum, a new Conservative leader might want an earlier election. It would provide a mandate from the people ahead of Brexit negotiations, a stronger moral position and possibly a bigger majority in Parliament.

Equally, the Labour Party might smell power in the event of an early election and seek to remove the new Tory leader from power by allying with Conservative dissidents. They would be wise, however, to wait until a concrete post-Brexit plan is revealed. It has become abundantly clear over recent months that some politicians, Boris Johnson chief among them, thrive in contests where speculation outweighs facts.

There are two ways an early election can be called. Either two thirds of MPs agree to the proposal, meaning Labour would have to support the idea; or a motion of no confidence is passed and no alternative government is confirmed by the Commons within 14 days.

There is of course a third way, by removing the Fixed-term Parliaments Act altogether. But this would have to pass both Commons and Lords and could take some time.

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    Triggering Article 50

    Triggering Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union kickstarts negotiations for leaving the EU, with a two-year deadline for a deal. It can only be triggered by the UK. A European Council spokesperson has confirmed this can take the form of “a letter to the president of the European Council or an official statement at a meeting of the European Council”.

    But it must be the clear intention of the British government to trigger Article 50 – it cannot be based on other EU members’ interpretation of something David Cameron says at a Council meeting. “It has to be done in an unequivocal manner with the explicit intent to trigger Article 50,” the spokesperson confirmed.

    Although other EU countries want divorce talks to start soon, Cameron has said he will leave it to his successor to invoke Article 50, meaning this is unlikely to happen until at least October. If there is a general election or a second referendum, triggering Article 50 could be delayed beyond that.

    Edited by Hugo Dixon