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Calls for second EU referendum gather steam as ‘remain’ voters scramble for hope

More support for anti-Brexit petitions

A controversial politician in the U.K.'s ruling Conservative Party has become the first senior government figure to hint at a second EU referendum vote, in what may prove a forlorn hope for disappointed "remain" voters.

The triumph of the "leave" vote in Thursday's referendum stunned global financial markets and many of the U.K. public, some of whom are clamoring for a chance to vote again.

A petition posted on the official U.K. government website calling for a second referendum has gained 3.9 million signatures and is under consideration for a debate in parliament, although outgoing U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron has ruled out the possibility of another vote on Brexit.

However, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt raised the possibility of another vote to endorse the terms of the U.K.'s exit from the EU on Tuesday, in a television interview in which he strongly hinted he would run to succeed Cameron as prime minister.

"I don't think it needs to be another referendum, but there needs to be some democratic endorsement of the terms in which we leave," Hunt, who supported "remain," told ITV's "Good Morning Britain" program.

"We have had nine general elections since we joined the EU and this is such a big thing that I think the terms on which we leave the EU also need to have the support of the British people and I also think that is the way we will get a better deal from our European partners," he later added.

A 'vote remain' supporter walks past a 'vote leave' supporter outside Downing Street, London.
Kevin Coombs | Reuters

Polls pointed to a victory for "remain" in the run-up to Thursday's vote, but "leave" won a narrow victory with 51.9 percent of votes in the U.K., where the public has long been skeptical of membership.

Amid the financial market and political fallout — including a Conservatives leadership contest and a "vote of no confidence" in the leader of the opposition Labour Party — some "remain" voters are finding the results hard to swallow. There is speculation the U.K. might yet squeeze concessions from the EU that would make membership more palatable to the British public — despite officials in Brussels pushing for the U.K. to head quickly to the exit. This hope is based partially on the assumption the EU will be desperate to prevent other countries clamoring for the own referendums on membership.

So far, only Poland, a newer EU member that like the U.K. is critical of calls for "ever-closer union," has signaled openness to a second U.K. referendum.

"Our idea for today...foresees efforts aimed at making Britain return, including a second referendum," Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the leader of Poland's ruling party, said on Monday, according to media reports.

Kaczynski added that Brexit would be "very bad" and the EU would need to "radically change" for the U.K. to remain.

Boris Johnson

Both Boris Johnson — the Conservative Party's highest-profile "leave" campaigner and leading candidate to become next prime minister — and Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne have said they do not want the U.K. to rush to exit. Some speculate Johnson may hope to squeeze concessions from Brussels that would warrant a second referendum that would this time be won by "remain."

"We could yet see a second re-negotiation, followed by a second referendum in which Prime Minister Johnson successfully campaigns for 'remain,' having achieved his primary goal by becoming prime minister," James Strong, a fellow in foreign policy analysis, said in a blog posted on the London School of Economics and Political Science website on Friday.

Referendums — followed by second referendums — on EU treaties have precedent in other member countries and the public appear more willing to vote "yes" in subsequent rounds of voting.

Irish referendums on the constitutional basis of the EU in 2001 and the bloc's expansion in 2008 were first rejected by the electorate before being approved in second referendums. Similarly, Denmark originally voted to reject the Maastricht Treaty on greater EU integration in 1992, before accepting it in a later referendum.

Jeremy Hunt

Meanwhile, the U.K. public has something else to ponder — a prime ministerial bid by Hunt, who has become a hate figure for junior doctors amid a long-running battle over pay and working conditions. Nominations for the new leader close on Thursday lunchtime.

Odds from U.K. betting firms on Hunt succeeding Cameron stand at only 50/1 — but they proved wrong on the referendum.

"I am not going to deny it (that I may run for prime minister) … I am seriously considering it," he told ITV on Tuesday.

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