Brexit: Could There Be a Second Referendum?

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Britain's UK Independence Party (UKIP) leader Nigel Farage in London May 6. Farage has said a narrow result in the EU referendum could lead to a second poll. Stefan Wermuth/Reuters

I heard that right, did I? A second referendum?

UKIP leader Nigel Farage has said that a close win for the "Remain" side in Britain's upcoming vote on its EU membership could trigger a new poll. Just imagine: you'd get to sit through the Hitler comparisons, wild conspiracy theories and endless reports from the IMF all over again.

Why would anyone want this?

Farage's argument is over legitimacy. He says that in the event of a narrow loss many Brexiters would "feel the prime minister is not playing fair." Many on the "Leave" side have focused on undermining the referendum process: launching attacks on the impartiality of ITV over its upcoming debate programmes, and claiming that Barack Obama's intervention was scripted by David Cameron's office. If the result was close, anti-EU politicians might try to stoke resentment and pile pressure on the government to call a re-run.

This isn't the first time a second referendum has been floated. Earlier in the campaign Dominic Cummings, one of the leaders of the Vote Leave group, suggested that Brexit campaigners should be pushing for a two referendum approach. He wrote on his blog, in a post reportedly read with interest by Boris Johnson before he came out for Leave, that anti-EU groups could push for the government to use a "Leave" vote as leverage to get a better deal from the EU, before calling another referendum on the new terms. This would have the advantage of seeming less risky for anti-EU voters too cautious to fully back Brexit.

How could this theory become reality?

Like I said, it isn't impossible.

The "Farage scenario" would probably rely on something close to the post-independence referendum changes in Scottish politics. In 2014, the Scottish pro-independence side lost their bid to secede from the U.K., but that triggered a vast rise in support for the pro-independence Scottish National Party as the 45 percent who voted to leave Britain rallied behind the party in solidarity.

If the U.K. votes narrowly to remain, Farage hopes UKIP might benefit from a similar effect (though more moderate voices in the party are skeptical). It's also possible that the anti-EU wing of the Tory party could be similarly galvanized, installing pro-Brexit Boris Johnson as David Cameron's successor.

Factor in both those elements, and you can't rule out another referendum.

The "Cummings configuration" is supposed to be impossible. The British government has repeatedly said it would immediately trigger Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon in the event of a "Leave" vote, setting in motion a two-year (barring any extensions) journey to the out door which most experts agree is irreversible.

But a Brexit would so scare the British and Brussels establishments that it isn't unthinkable they'd find a workaround before that process began.

It won't happen though, will it?

Probably not, or at least not right away. David Cameron has clearly and consistently ruled out a second referendum, and did so again today in response to Farage, saying "If we vote to stay, we stay and that's it."

That would be quite a reversal. Still, stranger things have happened.