A guide to Brexit, part 4: Is Britain’s departure from the EU inevitable?

By on 30/06/2016 | Updated on 01/07/2016
A guide to Brexit, part 4: Is Britain’s departure from the EU inevitable?
A guide to Brexit, part 4: Is Britain’s departure from the EU inevitable?

This is part 4 of our guide to Brexit, which considers whether a British exit from the EU could be averted.

Part 1 examines events leading up to the referendum result; part 2 explores the referendum’s immediate aftermath and the process for negotiating a British exit; and part 3 sets out the people and teams that will manage the UK’s departure. In the final section, part 5, we explore the potential outcomes and offer some concluding thoughts.

A rebellion against the rebellion

In Britain’s pubs, at its school gates and in its social media, very nearly half of the electorate are coming to terms with what many see as a huge blow to Britain’s prospects – and, therefore, to their own. Many are furious with the Brexit camp, which is rapidly retracting many of its far-fetched claims even as its leaders angle for ministerial jobs in the new Conservative government. The referendum – whilst not legally binding – creates a huge expectation that our next generation of political leaders will carry the UK out of the EU. Yet politicians, academics, journalists and campaigners are fast coming up with ways in which Brexit might be averted. How realistic are they?

The most optimistic among the Remainers hope that the next Tory prime minister will have a change of heart and perform one of the tightest, most hair-raising U-turns in political history. And in the case of the duplicitous Boris Johnson, that would have been conceivable: having “built a career on lies”, in the words of one top former official, he might have been tempted to get away with his biggest ‘porky’ yet. He’s out of the race, however (see part 3); and Gove appears to be a genuine Brexit believer. As for those with less impeccable Brexit credentials – they’re highly unlikely to win the premiership without offering Tory members many solemn promises of a UK exit.

Justice secretary and leading ‘Leave’ campaigner, Michael Gove, pictured at the Conservative Party conference

Justice secretary and leading ‘Leave’ campaigner, Michael Gove, pictured at the Conservative Party conference

Back on planet earth, constitutional experts have argued that the new PM cannot trigger Article 50 (see part 2) without getting an Act through Parliament – raising the prospect that a judicial review could halt the Brexit process pending parliamentary approval. Certainly, the ultimate goal of repealing the 1972 European Communities Act will require majorities in both Houses of Parliament.

Meanwhile, a petition calling for a second referendum has gathered well over 3m signatures. Questions have been raised over whether Britain could reverse the Article 50 process if its populace had a major change of heart. And Remain campaigner and health secretary Jeremy Hunt has suggested that the next PM could reach an agreement with Europe before triggering Article 50 – allowing them to win a mandate for their proposed settlement in a general election or second referendum.

Heading Brexit off at the Article 50 pass

This last option, though, has already been killed by the EU – with the Germans and French refusing to embark on substantive exit talks until Britain heads down the one-way road of Article 50. “Although we’re the only ones who can trigger Article 50, the rest of Europe won’t sit and twiddle their thumbs in a storm of instability” whilst they wait for talks to conclude, comments Dave Penman, general secretary of civil service managers’ union the FDA. “They’ll start to act if it’s in their interests to do so.”

So could the House of Commons – three quarters of whose members want Britain to remain in the EU – secure a vote and block Article 50? Former cabinet secretary Lord O’Donnell told Radio 4’s Today Programme on Tuesday that Parliament should be a major player in determining events: “When people voted Leave they were talking about getting back control for the UK Parliament, so we should think about what kind of a debate we should have in Parliament before we trigger Article 50,” he said. “Parliament needs to have a big role.”

Former UK Cabinet Secretary, Lord O'Donnell, speaking at GGF's Global Government Summit

Former UK Cabinet Secretary, Lord O’Donnell, speaking at GGF’s Global Government Summit

Tricky. If MPs were seen as denying the will of the people, there would be a strong and angry reaction from Brexit campaigners and voters. “If people try clever ways to work our way out of this, it will totally undermine what little faith people have in politics,” says Penman. “I wish there was a way out, but I can’t see it. People did vote in numbers, and I think there would be an enormous price to pay politically for whichever government or politician was seen be usurping the result of the referendum.”

This also applies to the 3m-strong petition, which has little force compared to the outcome of a formal, national referendum. What’s more, if the ‘establishment’ was seen to reject the referendum’s verdict and demand that people try again to give the ‘right’ answer, the anti-establishment vote would receive a big dose of steroids – increasing the chances that a second referendum would confirm the Leave verdict. Whilst many Brexiteers have since recanted and turnout might well rise in a second poll, there’s little reason to conclude that a referendum forced through in this way would provide a different result.

Stepping back from the brink

An Act – indeed, many Acts – will certainly be required to conclude the exit negotiations, but many experts believe that these will only be required when talks have concluded. “Article 50 says the decision [to give notification] must be made in accordance with the constitution of the country, but as far as I can tell that’s been met” in the shape of the referendum, says Dr Catherine Haddon, a fellow at think tank the Institute for Government.

“So it’s a decision for the next PM as to whether to hold a vote to provide endorsement,” she continues. “The point at which it becomes something that needs to be legislated is when Parliament needs to change the 1972 European Communities Act or international treaties. There’s all sorts of points at which Parliament could block or change or amend, but not until the end of the Article 50 negotiation period.”

By that time, more MPs might be willing to risk the public’s wrath and vote against enabling legislation. And though the House of Lords’ non-elected members would struggle to bridge the democratic gulf between their position and that of a national referendum result, some lords might be tempted to throw legislative or procedural obstacles into the path of Brexit. However, at that point Article 50 will have been in force for years. Few argue that, once triggered, it can be put into reverse – and even if it could, the EU will have its own reasons for finishing the job.

Faced with their own domestic insurgencies by anti-EU populists, most mainstream European leaders are determined to show their electorates that making a bid for freedom from the EU – and causing enormous political and economic damage en route – does not result in a happy ending. So even if the UK did change its mind after triggering Article 50, the EU would be extremely unlikely to let us back in on our existing, favourable terms. Instead, the prospect would be of joining afresh; and as a new member, Britain would be expected to forfeit its rebate and sign up to join the Euro and the Schengen border-free zone.

At that point, the UK’s leaders would have to go to the polls – either in a general election, or in a fresh referendum – offering a far less advantageous form of EU membership than the one Britain just rejected. Barring another massive political or economic upset – and in these strange times, that can’t be ruled out – it seems clear that once Article 50 has been triggered, Britain is heading for the door. Meanwhile, the EU is agitating for an Article 50 notification, and our PM is about to be selected by Tory MPs and members on the basis of their commitment to pursuing Brexit – so it also seems highly likely that we’ll see an Article 50 notification within a year or so of the Tories’ new leader taking office.

Even then, there will still be plenty at stake. For over the two years following an Article 50 notification, we’ll learn the nature of the UK’s ultimate relationship with the EU – and witness the medium-term fallout of this dramatic and unprecedented decision.

Click here to move to part 5, exploring the likely outcomes of Britain’s Brexit vote.


For up to date government news and international best practice follow us on Twitter @globegov

See also:

A guide to Brexit, part 1: how Britain voted to leave the EU

A guide to Brexit, part 2: What’s the process for negotiating a British exit from the EU?

A guide to Brexit, part 3: Who’ll run the negotiations?

A guide to Brexit, part 5: What is the likely outcome of Brexit?

Is the EU referendum result a wake-up call for employers?

Olly Robbins appointed head of government’s new Brexit unit

Oliver Letwin ‘completely unsuitable’ to lead Brexit unit, says former cabinet secretary

Brexit will be ‘largest legal, legislative and bureaucratic project in British history’, says former UK Treasury Solicitor

Clash over civil service advice in EU referendum

Bank of England’s independence under threat in EU referendum row

EU issues Poland with official warning over constitutional court changes

Sir Paul Jenkins, former UK Treasury Solicitor: EU Referendum interview

Managing the EU Migration Crisis

European Parliament orders Poland’s government to reverse changes to country’s top court

A family reunification dilemma for the EU

About Matt Ross

Matt is Global Government Forum's Contributing Editor, providing direction and support on topics, products and audience interests across GGF’s editorial, events and research operations. He has been a journalist and editor since 1995, beginning in motoring and travel journalism – and combining the two in a 30-month, 30-country 4x4 expedition funded by magazine photo-journalism. Between 2002 and 2008 he was Features Editor of Haymarket news magazine Regeneration & Renewal, covering urban regeneration, economic growth and community development; and from 2008 to 2014 he was the Editor of UK magazine and website Civil Service World, then Editorial Director for Public Sector – both at political publishing house Dods. He has also worked as Director of Communications at think tank the Institute for Government.

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