So we have a Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration. A Brexit “Deal”. And at the time of writing it looks pretty unlikely that such a deal will manage to get through the “Meaningful Vote” in the House of Commons (more on that here), a second referendum (so-called “People’s Vote”) on Brexit is going to go up the political agenda in the next few weeks.

For the record I am reluctantly in favour of such a second vote (more in an old entry here), but that is incidental to this post – here I want to ask the question: if such a referendum were to take place, what would the referendum question be?

There are essentially three Brexit options available just now:

  • May’s Deal
  • No Deal
  • Remain / No Brexit

The first issue then is which of these options would even be worthwhile having on the ballot?

If you ask the British population about the options, they favour May’s Deal over No Deal, but also do not like May’s Deal much eitherall summarised by YouGov here. That does not help us much! But now there is a viable Brexit Deal (May’s Deal) that one has to be on the ballot without any doubt. The question is what else should be on the ballot, and in what format?


1 referendum with 2 options

(In both of these cases each voter would simply cross one option)

May’s Deal vs. Remain
This one is assumed to be the most likely option. It gives voters a clear choice between two relatively well defined options – the terms of membership of the EU as they are, and May’s Deal and what that entails. Formulating a question to this end would be a simple task, and voters should have no problem handling it. The problem here would be that – among those who voted Leave at the 2016 referendum – No Deal is more popular than May’s Deal, so there would be outcry at excluding No Deal from the ballot paper. Chances this route chosen: high.

May’s Deal vs. No Deal
This one is a non-starter. The whole movement to push for a People’s Vote has been from people who claim the initial vote to leave was not legitimate, and that decision must be reconsidered. There is no groundswell of support among supporters of Brexit to put their version of Brexit against another vote in a referendum. And if the government tried to do this one you’d see the biggest protests ever in the UK. Chances: this one is not happening.


1 referendum with 3 options

(Here the issue is not what options to choose, but how to structure the questions and ballot paper – the options are the three listed in the introduction above)

Preference Voting (Alternative Vote)
Put all three options on the same ballot paper, and get voters to rank them 1, 2 and 3. The option that gathered the lowest number of first preferences would then see the second preferences of those voters redistributed, leaving one option with a majority. The headaches here are numerous – this is a system most voters in the UK are not familiar with, and it could be that the option that came out 2nd among first preferences ultimately wins out once votes are redistributed. Making this work would require campaigners for all options agree to back the process – a hard task. Chances: if there is to be a three option referendum, this would seem to be the fairest and most likely option.

Three options, but each voter gets just one vote, and simply the option that scores highest wins. This is the way First Past the Post works in Westminster elections, but that could likely mean no single option scores over 50% support. That would just muddy waters further, after the 2016 referendum that did not give a very clear mandate. Chances: a non starter.

Two questions, Deal or Not as first question
Ask a first question: May’s Deal or No Deal. And a second question: Brexit or No Brexit. For each question each voter would put just one cross. This formulation poses lots of difficulties for voters with complex preferences. How would someone who – for example – wanted May’s Deal over Remain, but Remain over No Deal vote here? Not knowing the outcome of the first question would make it hard to make a judgment on the second question. The 1997 Scottish Parliament referendum had two questions this way, but the second one – tax raising power – was clearly secondary to the question about the establishment of the Parliament. All options here are equally important, so I am not sure the precedent holds. Chances: puts voters with complex preferences in an impossible position. Should be eliminated.

Two questions, Brexit or Not as first question
The reverse of the previous option – ask first Brexit or No Brexit, and then as a second question – what sort of Brexit. This has the same headaches as the other two question variant, namely it fails to account for complex preferences. Chances: should be eliminated, as it cannot account for complex preferences.


2 referendums, a week or so apart

(A variant of the three option idea above, but with the questions posed on separate days – with the result of the first ballot known before voters went to the polls for the second ballot)

Brexit or Not, then May’s Deal or No Deal
This variant would be the most likely to guard against a No Deal Brexit – because if “Brexit” won the first vote, the Remain vote would likely go in behind “May’s Deal” in the second vote. And at least everyone would be voting with a clear head in the second referendum, knowing what had happened a week before. Chances: if you favour Brexit, and have to tolerate a referendum, this one would probably maximise your chances of Brexit still happening. Possible.

May’s Deal or No Deal, and then Brexit or Not
This one would pose Remain voters a quandary – Remain vs. May’s Deal in the second referendum would be closer than Remain vs. No Deal, but going for No Deal in the first round would be very risky – because No Deal might then be what would happen. And Remain voters hastening No Deal would be a very strange outcome. Chances: this one poses too many quandaries. Eliminate.

Approve May’s Deal or not, and if not, then vote on No Deal vs. Remain
This one has been proposed by Dominic Grieve – where May’s Deal would be put to approval first, and – failing that – No Deal would then be put up against Remain. Considering the lack of determination for May’s Deal (see YouGov) this would likely see No Deal versus Remain in a second round. Chances: this one has a certain elegance to it. It puts May’s Deal fore and centre, and sees the other options as alternatives, which is probably fair enough. Chances: if there were to be a two referendum system this ought to be the way to do it.


So there you have it – 9 different ways to structure a referendum (or two referendums). Ultimately I think three of these options deserve more analysis:

  1. May’s Deal vs. Remain (2 option)
  2. Preference voting (3 option)
  3. Approve May’s Deal or not, and if not, then No Deal vs. Remain (2 referendums)

Want more on these issues? People’s Vote has a paper about referendum technicalities – PDF here. UCL’s Constitutional Unit explored these matters in a September blog post, before May agreed her Deal was agreed. And Vernon Bogdanor has dug out a 1992 example from New Zealand (albeit on the less controversial issue of electoral reform) that could act as a precedent. But Britain needs to confront these issues fast – because within three weeks the points could be set towards a further referendum.


  1. Yvonne B

    No vote, we have had one!!

  2. This has got messed up because the referendum came up with the “Wrong” result as far as MP’s are concerned, the chaos that ensued is the inevitable result of having a remainer as PM and pushing a BRINO deal that nobody wants and keeps us in the EU. May’s deal means we’ll still be in but on worse terms than we already have. I think her deal should be binned as it has no merit and no support. The choice should be a referendum between No deal or Remain. I think remain would win but if it didn’t we are still the EU’s biggest customer and common sense says they will want to keep the 140 billion trade deficit going with a trade agreement and we will be free to agree trade deals with the rest of the world as well. Either way we are a big economy and we will survive this but the antics of our parliament are making us look ridiculous, if we don’t do something, anything even a bad decision is better than no decision so let’s have a once and for all peoples vote now and this time do not publish regional votes unless you want to provoke enmity and Nationalism within our Union!

  3. Maybe, I’m stupid. But why not putting all options in one row, giving each same weight and every voter 1 choice. Then take the 3 strongest options for a 2nd run. After 2nd run, take the weakest option away and have a final – and most probably 1 winner. Optimum transparency, easy to understand, no manipulation or preconceptions, equal chance to all options, no difficulties for voters with complex preferences. It guarantees every option same right and handles every option as one single and indipendent answer to the question, how to secure Britains future in relation to the EU. Nothing more, nothing less.

  4. Stephen James

    There should be another option box
    Don’t know

    I am sure that many people just don’t know what is in the best interest for the UK and its long term future. To be able to put a cross in the “Don’t know” box would allow them to have a vote. A “Don’t know” box in effect hands the decision back to parliament who should never have given a referendum to the people in the first place. Parliament is elected to make these decisions on our behalf.

  5. Gordon Reynolds

    In any peoples vote on Brexit voters need to choose one of three options: –
    “May’s Deal”
    “No Deal”
    “Remain / No Brexit”

    If the sum of the Votes cast for “Mays deal” plus “No Deal” is greater than those cast for “Remain / No Brexit” then: –

    If there are more votes for “No Deal” than for “Mays Deal” then: –
    “No Deal” Wins.

    If there are more votes cast for Mays Deal than for No Deal then: –
    “Mays Deal” Wins.

    If the total votes cast for “Remain / No Brexit” exceed those for the sum of
    “May’s Deal” plus “No Deal” then: –

    “Remain / No Brexit” Wins

  6. Simpler still, no second referendum

  7. I’m inclined to think that what happens is that the deal is voted down, the markets and sterling tank, and a second vote is carried.

    • Billy, I work at a big investment firm. Our thinking is that the markets won’t tank after the first vote. They might wobble a bit, but we will all be thinking that there is a good chance of a second referendum, or Norway+, or another run at May’s deal. These options are positive or neutral for sterling.The markets will weigh these possibilities up alongside the risk of no deal, leaving sterling largely unruffled. Sterling will only tank if Parliament proves itself unable to find a majority for any other option expect no deal. I doubt this will happen, but who knows.

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