The letter is sent, but the die is not cast. Britain could change course—and it mightby Jolyon Maugham / April 10, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in May 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
“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The European Council, Commission and Parliament have all said that our Article 50 notification can be withdrawn.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.