Theresa May signs the Article 50 letter: "Many of us... make the mistake of assuming a static political backdrop" ©Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Article 50: Trigger unhappy

The letter is sent, but the die is not cast. Britain could change course—and it might
April 10, 2017

“There is no turning back,” crowed the Sun, threatened the Mail, regretted the FT, sneered the Telegraph, and parroted the Guardian. Soon after signing her Article 50 letter, Theresa May repeated the press’s line. And it is not only the media. The notion that Brexit is inevitable has taken root in the accommodative soil that substitutes for thought in the Labour Party leadership. For the Tories the diagnosis differs. Like Maori warriors with their tattooed moko, they parade a fervent attachment to the self-punishing pleasures of a “hard Brexit” to signal their high status to one another. The public too, insofar as the polls can gauge the mood, believes Brexit is now a done deal and want the government to get on with it.

Taken alone, each is a formidable obstacle to the view that Brexit can be avoided. And taken together? Do they cast its proponents as a Shetland pony optimistically breaking the starter’s tape on Grand National Day? Well, the metaphor runs this far. We do sit at the bottom of the handicap. And we’re unfancied—but only because we’re overlooked. For we have a clear path to success.

The European Council, Commission and Parliament have all said that our Article 50 notification can be withdrawn. The Commission and Parliament say withdrawal requires the remaining 27 member states to all agree; the Council that only a weighted majority vote is required. And there may be an easier legal route to the finishing line. Many leading lawyers say we can withdraw the notification without the consent of our counterparts. We could withdraw it, in other words, without stopping to ask anyone else, simply because we wanted to. We could withdraw it, to get a bit more specific, if our electorate took a long hard look at what is really on offer and decided they don’t want it after all.

If the lawyers are right, it could be that the stated opinions of Council, Commission and Parliament reflect not legal reality, but a political fear that an ability to withdraw Article 50 unilaterally would strengthen the UK’s negotiating hand. We cannot know this for sure, however. Not yet, at any rate, but this question is before the High Court in Ireland. And assuming it makes a reference to the Court of Justice—the ultimate arbiter of such matters—we will have an answer comfortably before the end of the year.

But either way—whether unilaterally or by agreement—there is room to reconsider, at least as far as the law is concerned. What that leaves, then, is a series of political questions. Could the British public come to want to remain? And if we did, could we rely on our parliament to give us that choice? To these questions the answer is “yes.” Consider the evidence to date. Yes, the polls suggest, the people prioritise restrictions on freedom of movement—but only if they don’t believe there is a cost attached. In the nine months since the referendum result there has been an enormous increase in the proportion of the population who believe Brexit will be bad for the economy. And that view is now held in every region, every age group and every income group. But the most telling evidence is not in yet: it will reflect a future that is only now beginning to unfold. We have spent nine months in an echo chamber the size of a small nation. Not long ago our political establishment was mostly wary of Brexit, but after nine months of hearing little but its own voice and that of an ugly and angry press, it has now managed to persuade itself that all will be fine. Meanwhile the electorate—much encouraged by that same press—has remained steadfast from June.

A breath of wind, however, would move support. And what winds there are. Before us lie a dozen or more problems of profound difficulty. How to bridge the gap between those who demand we pay nothing on leaving and those who price our exit at €60bn or more. How to disentangle the UK from the European Union’s membership of the World Trade Organisation. Or recast our security in the face of threats to Nato’s functioning. Think of the forewarnings from Japanese manufacturers and German banks. The steady ebb of our world-leading financial services sector. The staffing crisis in our NHS and schools. The tens of billions of extra public borrowing that the chancellor has signalled he stands ready to incur if the demands of Brexit require it. The forecasted falls in real wages consequential on higher inflation.

But take just one, which several pieces in this issue of Prospect are examine in depth. Look at our growing awareness of the effects of Brexit on the Union. Nicola Sturgeon has demanded a referendum on Scottish independence. Spain has dropped its opposition to Scotland remaining in the EU, significantly clearing the path to Sturgeon’s ambition of Scottish independence in Europe. And Theresa May is stoking the fires by refusing to discuss when such a referendum might happen. In Ireland, as Denis MacShane explains on p12, the power-sharing agreement is imperilled. Support for Sinn Féin is increasing to the point where it could top the polls, and a united Ireland is back on the political agenda. Meanwhile, no suggestion has been mooted to resolve the intractable problem of a land border between an Ireland inside and a Northern Ireland outside the single market and customs union. This may well be because, in truth, there is no solution. Even in Wales, which voted to leave, Plaid Cymru has called for Welsh independence to be considered if Scotland votes to leave. Gibraltar, which voted 96 per cent to “Remain,” already faced a deeply uncertain future in light of our government’s preference for a hard Brexit. Things now look more difficult still in light of a Spanish veto over allowing any EU-UK deal to apply to Gibraltar. For good measure, the former Tory leader and Brexiteer Michael Howard put Spain on warning, saying he was “absolutely certain” Theresa May would send in the Royal Navy, if needed.

For nine months we bounced around in our echo chamber. All would be fine. But now’s the moment that thesis is tested, in front of a jury of the electorate, and likely to destruction. You think those problems get resolved? You think the political dynamic remains the same? You think the electorate won’t care? Good luck to you. Yes, we’ve heard the arguments. Yes, there are many who will blame the EU when the wheels fall off; many politicians are banking on as much, and many newspapers will—no doubt—encourage that. But nobody among that 48 per cent who believe that membership of the EU has served the country well is going to blame Brussels. And it is condescending to the intelligence of those who voted to “Leave” to assume that all will ignore the obvious explanation. They will not.

As for Parliament, while it may currently have a substantial Brexit majority, this is far more fragile than it seems. Many who voted to notify the EU under Article 50 did so only because, despite the dreadful flaws of the campaign, they see it as a consequence required by the referendum result: we told the voters we would leave, and so we should leave. The democratic force of the result runs far. But it does not run forever. Before the result was known, 479 MPs had declared for “Remain,” three times as many as for Leave. Every major party at Westminster had a Remain majority. Sure, a few Remainers may have been Conservative careerists, striking what then seemed like the most expedient pose. But the rest? If public support for Brexit starts to dip, they will notice. They will want to notice. They will read it in their post-bags. They will see it in their polls. They will glean it in the media. They will hear it from their constituency parties. And anyone who thinks MPs will ignore these pressures, shortly before a general election, and carry on doing exactly the same thing, doesn’t know what it means to be an MP.

If Brexit becomes tarnished in the public eye, Labour MPs will find it very easy to revert to what, all along, they have believed to be the right course for the country. As will a large group of moderate Conservatives. And the Brexit ultras will be where they were before—a furious fringe. What of Theresa May, herself a Remainer a matter of months ago? When she has come under pressure she has listened. There was not to be a White Paper—and then there was a White Paper. Parliament was not to have a vote on triggering Article 50—but voted to trigger it. Think back to May’s Lancaster House speech in January. She promised that “the government will put the final deal that is agreed between the UK and the EU to a vote in both houses of parliament, before it comes into force.” But she did not spell out the all-important consequences of parliament rejecting that deal—would we crash out of the club with no protection, or would we after all remain inside? She could have been explicit, but was not. Was she deliberately preserving the space to go, again, where parliament takes her? We cannot know, but it is very possible.

It is—surely—all but inconceivable that she would ever revoke the Article 50 notification herself. But if she put the “Final Deal” to parliament, what is to stop parliament requiring that this deal be approved by the public? And there are other, more speculative, possibilities too. Of these, perhaps the most interesting springs from the requirement that any divorce deal be approved by the European Parliament. If that parliament glanced over the channel, and saw a British public in a mood for a rethink, which Westminster was too obstinate to countenance, the European Parliament might impose a condition to giving its consent. Namely, that the UK electorate has the chance to vote on this final deal.

Stand back.

In analysing how Brexit will play out, it is easy to make the mistake of assuming a static backdrop, and unchanging public opinion. Do that, and you will presume too that MPs who think Brexit will be bad for the country will fail to make their voices heard. But change your backdrop—assume instead that support for Brexit has fallen to 40 per cent—and your analysis changes as well.

Supply will rise to meet this demand: individual MPs will not wish to have delivered an unpopular Brexit. Nor will their parties. And nor will a cautious prime minister with a tiny majority, whose careful words have sometimes seemed designed to leave a way out.

All these things remain sensibly possible. There are reasonable future universes in which they come to pass. Leave the echo chamber. Listen to the great beyond. Brexit is not inevitable.