You were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off
For the whole of the weekend after the referendum result Boris Johnson and Michael Gove were missing in action, nowhere to be seen. Earlier, as they delivered their Friday morning victory speech they looked ‘like they were at the funeral of their old friend’, not triumphant as one might expect. Cameron had resigned, leaving it up to them to pull the Article 50 trigger. They held a poisoned chalice, as argued brilliantly by a commenter in The Guardian. Since the referendum results, no clear indication has been given as to what would happen next, other than the selection of a new Prime Minister. One possible explanation is that absolutely no one ever believed that the Leave campaign could win, not even their leaders.
Farage had essentially conceded defeat at the beginning of the evening of the referendum and the look on his face when he realised that he had won was surely as much astonishment as jubilation. Anna Soubry has suggested that not only did Boris not expect to win, he did not even want to win. Boris is not stupid — he knows Brexit would be disastrous for the UK, and has actually said as much in the past, numerous times. However, thinking he could never win, he sought to lead a campaign that might almost win, and thus create an image of himself as a plucky leader who stood up to the establishment for the ‘little guy’. He then, as Prime Minister, could have returned to Brussels on the strength of his near-win to argue for a new settlement for the UK and secure his place in posterity. But that is not how things turned out.
The Leave campaign did have their so-called ‘Brexit Queen’s Speech’ outlining six bills — the Finance Bill, the National Health Service (Funding Target) Bill, the Asylum and Immigration Control Bill, the Free Trade Bill, and the European Communities Act 1972 (Repeal) Bill — which they planned to introduce during the current Parliament, after we had ‘brexited’. But nowhere is there an actual plan for how exactly the UK is supposed to go about leaving the EU, other than activating Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, as if it was a huge red button in Brussels clearly marked ‘Do Not Press’.
Many of us had been given the impression that the Prime Minister simply needed to tell Brussels of his intention to activate Article 50. Perhaps that is all Brussels needs, but it is not what Westminster needs. An act of parliament is required to authorise the Prime Minister to do such a thing. Herein lies the first problem. The members of the House of Commons are 7:3 (perhaps closer to 8:2) opposed to Brexit and have a duty to act in accordance with what they think is in Britain’s best interests. It is true that they might decide that abiding by the referendum is the national interest, but many may weigh that against the perils of Brexit and decide not to. Thus, passing the act could possibly require a general election; that is, another election to decide if we want to elect a government who is willing to enact the result of the referendum. An additional hurdle is that MPs will only be willing to vote to enact the triggering of Article 50 if they first know exactly what is involved in leaving the EU, due to their aforementioned duties to act in the nation’s interests. Herein lies the second problem. According to Professor Dougan of the University of Liverpool’s Law School, the two-year negotiations following the triggering of Article 50 are simply negotiations for the separation. It is only after the separation has been completed that negotiations for future relations can commence. Thus, the formal negotiations for the UK’s future in Europe will start two years after Article 50 is triggered, but, as stated above, MPs are unlikely to authorise the triggering of Article 50 without knowing, at least in broad terms, the likely results of the negotiations. Informal negotiations can take place before Article 50 is triggered, presumably for this very reason; however, Germany, France and Italy have ruled out any such negotiations. Further, it has now transpired that the Scottish parliament may have the power to veto or block any such act of parliament. Given that it was highly likely that Scotland would overwhelmingly vote to stay in the EU, it is odd that no one raised this issue when considering the constitutional details of activating Article 50, and even more odd that no one raised any of the other issues mentioned — unless, of course, consideration of the constitutional details was never undertaken as no one thought that any preparation for Brexit would be necessary.
In relation to Article 50, there is another reason for pause: triggering it is final. The UK and EU have two years to agree to terms of separation; if no agrement is reached after two years and the EU refuses to grant an extension then the UK is out on its ear with no agreement. Thereafter, the UK has left the EU, and if it wants to rejoin or come to new terms it will have to start negotiations from scratch (a process that will likely take approximately 10 years). Much of the Leave campaign’s rhetoric appeared to revolve around negotiating a better deal, but how could that be? Leaving the EU is exactly what it says it is. Thus, the question arises: if the proponents of the Leave campaign were genuinely seeking to exit the EU under Article 50 how and when did they believe these negotiations for a new and better deal would occur? Either they deliberately omitted communicating that this would be many, many years in the future, or, believing outright victory to be impossible, they were actually seeking a narrow defeat; that is, that the UK would remain in the EU, but the results would be so narrow that they would have a mandate for renegotiation. If this was their true intention then they have gambled with the prosperity and future of the entire country and lost spectacularly, rendering all of us losers too.
If the leaders of the Leave campaign truly never countenanced outright victory as a possible outcome, then we find ourselves in a situation for which they are wholly unprepared, with ramifications that the electorate were not made aware of. It also puts all of their promises in question. Promises are easy if you don’t believe you will ever have to keep them.
- Alastair Campbell, Leavers underestimated the national disaster Brexit will unleash
- Brexit is a poison chalice
- Anna Soubry MP on Boris Johnson not believing that they’d win
- EU Referendum: How Boris Johnson Has Changed His Tune On Britain Remaining In The European Union
- Vote Leave leaders reveal post-Brexit ‘roadmap’
- Brexit loophole? MPs must still vote in order for Britain to leave the EU, top lawyers say
- Prof Michael Dougan of University of Liverpool Law School on the EU Referendum
- Germany rules out informal Brexit talks before article 50 is triggered
- Nicola Sturgeon: Scottish parliament could block Brexit
- Pulling the Article 50 ‘Trigger’: Parliament’s Indispensable Role