Five reasons Brexit might never happen
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The shock and dismay that followed Britain’s decision to quit the EU has given way to quiet hopes that Brexit might somehow be avoided. Those hopes are not entirely groundless.
Lord North’s ghost
Since his baffling gamble backfired so spectacularly on Thursday, Prime Minister David Cameron has been likened to Lord North, the 18th century prime minister who famously “lost America”. For the UK to “lose Europe” as well, the government will have to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which will set the clock ticking on a two-year period to negotiate the terms of the divorce. Cameron won’t be pulling the trigger. He has handed that responsibility over to his successor, who will be designated ahead of the Conservative Party conference in October. Britain’s next leader is likely to be the former London mayor Boris Johnson or another of the leading Brexiters. Except they have been conspicuously non-committal since Thursday’s vote, suggesting there is “no rush” to get the process started. Sources within the Leave camp have admitted they do not have a plan of action. The prospect of marathon negotiations with Brussels – which will involve tearing up and rewriting 43 years of legislation and trade deals, from a position of weakness – may yet dampen their enthusiasm for Brexit. And with a pro-EU Scotland threatening to hold another vote on Scottish independence, Cameron’s successor will surely be reluctant to go down in history as the one who “lost both Europe and Scotland”.
The perception among opponents of Brexit is that many of their fellow Britons were swindled into voting Leave through a combination of campaign lies, tabloid misinformation and foolish calculations. Social media are awash with reports of buyer’s remorse among Leave voters, some of whom reportedly backed Brexit to ensure Remain “didn’t win too big”. In just four days, a petition calling for a second referendum has garnered more than 3.3 million signatures. Young people who overwhelmingly voted to remain part of the EU are furious that their future has been decided by retirees who won’t have to deal with the consequences. But cases of voters regretting their choice may well be anecdotal, and there is no guarantee a second vote would have a different outcome. More importantly, it is hard to see on what grounds parliament and the government might justify ignoring the will of the 17.4 million people who voted Leave.
Westminster vs the people
Technically, members of parliament don’t need to call a second referendum to overturn the Brexit verdict. They can simply refuse to ratify it. The referendum result is not binding, it is advisory. Two thirds of MPs are pro-EU and horrified at the prospect of quitting. They could conceivably block the whole process, though it would mean incurring the wrath of the people. Instead they may opt to influence the negotiation process and push for Britain to at least remain part of Europe’s common market. After all, the referendum does not specify what kind of relationship the UK should have with the EU after it forfeits full membership.
Parliament may yet feel entitled to challenge the outcome of the referendum if a snap election is held and a party with an explicitly pro-European mandate is elected into office. The ruling Conservatives don’t have to call an election (not until 2020), but they may find they have no other choice. The Brexit saga has exasperated divisions within the party, and a government led by Boris Johnson would find it difficult to command a majority in parliament. The problem for the Europhile camp is that the Labour Party, the UK’s main opposition force, is also on the verge of imploding. Many Labour MPs are gunning for party leader Jeremy Corbyn, who is seen as lukewarm in his support for the EU (and not the kind of politician who will easily defy the will of British voters). The Liberal Democrats, the third-largest group in parliament, have said they will be fighting the next election on a promise to rejoin the EU, but they hardly look like election winners.
Edinburgh to the rescue
MPs in Westminster are not the only lawmakers who can thwart Brexit. According to a report by the House of Lords, the UK’s devolved legislatures in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland must also be consulted before EU laws can be annulled. Given that voters in both Scotland and Northern Ireland voted against Brexit, lawmakers in both countries’ assemblies would feel entitled to veto the process of leaving the EU. Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, the leader of the Scottish National Party has already said that “of course” she would ask lawmakers to refuse to give their “legislative consent” to Brexit. In theory, this veto power could be revoked by the UK parliament. But doing so would certainly spark outrage, fuelling lingering tensions in Northern Ireland and feeding the pro-independence camp in Scotland.