Brexit is going to happen; a response
Jon Worth, respected EU blogger, wrote this article on why, for various reasons, the reality of Brexit would prove an impossibility. Such a thesis seems to me to be quite common in the political commentariat, certainly among those with an above average (by UK standards) understanding of the EU. It is not an idea that I support however and I’m going to lay out why in this post.
For me, part of the issue lies in a false understanding of how Theresa May operates and how she reaches policy decisions. After she appointed three prominent Brexiteers (Fox, Johnson and Davis) to key roles that would be heavily involved in delivering Brexit, many described this as a masterstroke, making them the engineers to their own failure as they discovered (and would have to explain to the public) that the things they had promised in the campaign were not actually possible. I reject this reading essentially out of hand. In my view May made these appointments because she had to. Brexiteers were already attacking her for having campaigned for Remain (and so being unfit to lead Brexit negotiations) and so she had to build her credibility with her party. Prior to her promotion to PM, Theresa May had never been identified as a strategic mastermind, rather the opposite, she was seen as straightforward and simple. I do not believe this changed overnight. I see in her actions no secret policy to halt Brexit, I believe she is really committed to making Brexit happen and is totally devoted to maintaining party unity and loyalty.
This is not to say that Brexit won’t be long and difficult, but rather than an exit will definitely happen, later if not sooner.
Many point to the constant delays in when Article 50 will be triggered. After all, first it was going to be the same day as the result, then later this year and now later 2017. But for me that is where the delays stop. Of course it could never be activated this year; the government needs time to prepare a negotiating position. Given this time, early 2017 seems unlikely as it is before the elections in France and Germany (which could disrupt any negotiation process), while after 2017 the timetable becomes even tighter as budget negotiations for the period post-2020 and the next scheduled general election both loom large. Late 2017 then seems like the optimal period to start negotiations, making the delays totally unsurprising even for a government totally committed to exit.
There is no denying that the Brexiteers do not have a coherent plan for negotiations currently. I do not even necessarily expect them to have one by the time that negotiations. Pressure from the hardline Brexit wing of the Tory party will push them to start negotiations sooner or later, regardless of how well formulated the plan is. If we are indeed arguing that those appointed to deal with this are essentially incompetent, I see no reason to rule out them going into this process purely out of political principle even if they have no clear idea of where they are going. Indeed some of the buccaneering statements from Fox and Davis even make me suspect that they are liable to do this.
Jon Worth is right to point out that economic uncertainty will force the government to come back to the issue of Article 50 (though I believe the timeframe of late 2017 is genuine anyway). But my interpretation is not that they will offer another referendum. Indeed even within the much more pro-EU Labour party this suggestion has essentially fallen on deaf ears for the most part, the suggestion that the Tory party would then take this up seems somewhat unlikely in this context. Rather this will merely force them to go ahead with negotiations and seek to end the uncertainty, likely with the result of leaving the UK with a worse deal than could otherwise be achieved without the economic pressure.
In short, seeing many of the same reasons for complexity and delays in the Brexit process, while Jon concludes that this will lead to an impasse in actually delivering Brexit and a referendum that will reverse the previous one, I instead see a future where the government presses ahead with the negotiations and, under the pressure of economic difficulty and unruly backbenchers, the government rushes towards any Brexit it can lay its hands on, leaving the UK undoubtedly worse off and with a (at best) mediocre deal but nonetheless fully Brexit-ed.