The drive for a new referendum is coming from those who had hoped to "remain" in the E.U. Thursday's referendum was fairly close — the "leave" vote won with just 51.9 percent. And so the petition for a new referendum suggests there should be a rule that in referendums with less than 75 percent turnout (Thursday's vote was 72.2 percent), there should be another referendum unless a decision is reached by more than 60 percent of those voting.
Could this plan actually work? Might Britain actually vote again and decide to stay in the E.U.? Well, it's certainly possible. But that doesn't mean it's not completely daft.
Why it is (kind of) possible
It would be an odd move to have a referendum immediately after a previous referendum on the same subject provided a clear outcome. But, frankly, this entire situation is odd.
Britain has only ever had three nationwide referendums. Generally, major policy decisions are decided by the country's elected officials. As many have noted, this referendum was only called in a bid by Prime Minister David Cameron to calm tensions over the E.U. within his own Conservative Party ahead of a general election. Cameron thought he could win. Obviously he was completely mistaken.
Thursday's referendum wasn't actually legally binding — Cameron could have set it up to be so (a nationwide 2011 referendum was set up to be), but he apparently decided better of it. This means that, in theory at least, the British government could completely ignore the results and do whatever it thinks is best.
Of course, doing that would anger the majority of the country who voted to leave the E.U. But a new referendum could provide some democratic justification to the decision.
The close result does help the argument somewhat. Britain's 1975 referendum on membership of the European Economic Community was decided by a 67.2 percent vote to stay in. In the 2011 vote (on whether to use the Alternative Vote electoral system) was decided by 67.9 percent of the vote. Nigel Farage, a key Brexit supporter, unwittingly provided support for this argument by saying that if "remain" won by a "52 to 48" margin, there would be "unfinished business" and an argument for another vote.
Another additional factor is the various reports of those who voted "leave" but now say they are dismayed at what has happened. Many of these accounts seem to suggest that the "leave" voter in question thought their vote would serve as a protest vote. "I didn’t think my vote was going to matter too much because I thought we were just going to 'remain,'" one man told the BBC on Friday, adding that he was "quite worried" about the effect.
Okay. There are a few things to unpick here, so we'll go through them step by step.
- Ignoring the clear result of a referendum is unfair. Sure, the results of Thursday's vote were close, but they were pretty conclusive. 51.9 percent is a better mandate than most governments win for a general election, for example. It would also be political suicide for Britain's government to effectively say "your vote didn't count" to half the country. And millions may want a new referendum, but 17 million already voted in one to leave.
- You can't retroactively legislate like this. The proposal outlined in the petition would require setting up laws and then retroactively applying them to Thursday's vote. To put it simply, that's not how laws work. It's worth noting that the petition appears to have been set up in May, ahead of the vote, in a bid to change the rules before Britons voted. However, in practice this doesn't matter – it'd still be retroactive legislation if it happened now.
- Petitions don't mean much. Now that the petition has over 100,000 votes it will be debated by Parliament, but British members of Parliament have no imperative to act on it. Petitions get lots of signatures all the time and nothing happens: Remember the debate on whether to ban Donald Trump from Britain earlier this year?
- "Remain" might still lose anyway. For those who supported "remain," the idea that "leave" voters are regretful voters who didn't know what they were doing is heartening. However, we only have anecdotal evidence of a few regretful pro-Brexit voters who have talked to media outlets. Until there is a vigorously conducted poll that shows otherwise, its fair to conclude that "leave" would win a second referendum anyway.
What could possibly happen
That said, there is a lot of uncertainty in the air. Cameron has already said he would step down, which will trigger a leadership contest for the Conservatives. There are signs that Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the opposition Labour Party, may also be forced to step down. Some wonder whether there could be another general election before the end of the year.
Meanwhile, Britain has not yet triggered Article 50 — the procedure for actually leaving the E.U. — and there are signs it may try to delay doing so as long as possible. If there is a general election, how and when to leave the E.U. would probably become a major issue.
Even when Article 50 is invoked, negotiations may take up to two years. Any new deal with the E.U. will have to pass Parliament. Some in Westminster are saying that it should probably be put to referendum again. If that happens, it may well be the last chance for "remain" to have their voice heard.
Correction: An earlier version of this story said the petition was started on Friday. However, it appears to have been created in May, although it only reached its heights of popularity after the vote on Thursday.