Guide to the EU Referendum

The question

Voters were asked the following question:

Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?

and asked to choose one of two options:

  • Remain a member of the European Union
  • Leave the European Union

In Wales the question and response options were also printed in Welsh as follows:

A ddylai’r Deyrnas Unedig aros yn aelod o’r Undeb Ewropeaidd neu adael yr Undeb Ewropeaidd?

  • Aros yn aelod o’r Undeb Ewropeaidd
  • Gadael yr Undeb Ewropeaidd

The wording matched the question recommended by the Electoral Commission to the government following research into voters’ reactions to this and a number of other possible alternatives.

Read further details on the Electoral Commission website.

Why did the referendum happen?

During 2012, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), a party that had until this point never won more than 3% of the vote at a general election, began to make significant progress in parliamentary by-elections and the opinion polls. UKIP’s principal objective was to hold a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU with a view to securing a mandate to leave. It appeared that UKIP’s electoral progress was being made at the particular expense of the Conservative Party, and thus constituted an apparent threat to that party’s future electoral prospects. This inevitably generated concern amongst Conservative MPs, many of whom were critical of the way in which the EU operates while some were unequivocally in favour of leaving.

In a speech at the London offices of Bloomberg in January 2013, the Conservative Prime Minister proposed that Britain should hold an ‘in/out’ referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU after talks had been held with a view to renegotiating Britain’s relationship with it. He was not, however, at that stage in a position to pursue this proposal because it was opposed by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition government. Thus Mr Cameron promised that the policy would be pursued if the Conservatives were able to form a majority government after the general election due to take place in May 2015, and that the proposed referendum would be held before the end of 2017.

The Conservatives did win an overall majority at the May 2015 general election, and the UK government immediately embarked on a renegotiation of Britain’s terms of membership, with a view to holding the referendum thereafter. An agreement was reached at the European Council held in February 2016 and David Cameron then announced that the referendum would be held on 23rd June 2016 and that he would be recommending that the country vote to ‘Remain’.

Following the rejection of his advice by a majority of voters, Mr Cameron indicated his intention to resign as Prime Minister and he gave way to his successor as Conservative Party leader, Theresa May, on 13th July 2016.

This was the second referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU since the country joined the then ‘Common Market’ in 1973. The first referendum was held in 1975 after the then Labour government, a number of whose members had opposed joining the Market at this time, had renegotiated Britain’s terms of membership. In that referendum 67% voted in favour of staying in the Common Market while 33% voted against.

What did the polls say?

Details of vote intentions in the referendum as estimated by 168 polls conducted between September 2015 and June 2016 are to be found here.

During the referendum, we ran a poll of polls of voting intention based on the average of the last six polls of voting intentions to be conducted.  This can be found here.