Journal of Theoretical Politics
We explain the referendums on British membership of the European Communities and European Union from a principal–agent perspective between the Prime Minister and the rank-and-file. We show that announcing a referendum on the Prime Minister’s membership proposal helps the incumbent party to win the general election when the rank-and-file is divided on the terms of membership. When the Prime Minister overcomes the rank-and-file’s mistrust of her effectiveness in negotiating new membership terms with other member states, the voters are more likely to follow her proposal. However, when intra-party controversies reveal principal–agent problems, the initially uninformed voters can learn about the dysfunctionality of the terms and are more likely to reject the Prime Minister’s proposal.