The High Court ruling on Thursday that Article 50 cannot be triggered without being first put to a vote in parliament has given the media storm surrounding Brexit a second wind, ranging from objective reporting to the downright ridiculous.
Might we even end up remaining after all?
Few among the Brexiteers believe that this could happen. But while the odds are still in favour of the House, it’s a definite possibility. Ever since Brexit was but a whisper in the murmuring Eurosceptic winds of discontent, economists have overwhelmingly argued that the UK would be better off sticking around. In the wake of Thursday’s ruling (and then a Bank of England policy shift), the value of the pound has risen sharply against the euro and the dollar. Does the market consider the garden to be a little rosier just because the risk of hard-Brexit has receded, or could it be more than that?
Keir Starmer, shadow Brexit secretary, delivered an assured speech to the House of Commons last month, in which he gladly accepted the will of the British public to leave, but questioned:
‘Where is the mandate for the terms?’
This appears to be a sticking point for many. While MPs clearly feel a responsibility to reflect the views and voting patterns of their constituents, ‘Bregret’ is now so widespread that a repeat referendum held today might produce the opposite result. As key cogs in the machine that keeps Britain functioning, MPs will be conscious of the upcoming hardships facing the electorate, and wary of the threatening political upheaval that may follow.
With this in mind, it’s certainly possible that the MPs in parliament that favoured remaining – a majority – will seize an opportunity not just to scupper May’s plans for a hard Brexit, but to derail the train entirely.
At the moment, terms of exit cannot be negotiated until Article 50 is triggered, restricting the parliamentary negotiating table to just opening tack. But where there is willingness on both sides, I feel that there’s room for leeway here.
While May’s pro-Remain leanings were subtle enough for her sneak to the forefront of a Brexit administration, her Goldman Sachs speech shows she would ultimately have preferred to stay. In her dreams, the electorate sees her as having fought tooth and nail for Brexit but alas, to no avail. So too would the EU prefer Team GB inside its ranks – President of the European Council Donald Tusk said so in no uncertain terms at May’s first EU summit:
“If it is reversible or not, this is in the British hands. I would be the happiest one if it is reversible.”
Is it really that far-fetched, then, to envisage parliament only triggering Article 50 on the condition that the final negotiated terms be put to the public, and if rejected, for the country to remain? Current legislation and directives do not provide for this, but an EU eager not to splinter could make allowances. It could potentially encourage the EU to be particularly stubborn in the negotiation of exit terms, but by all accounts they’re going to do this anyway. And of course the decision will be challenged as unconstitutional and illegal, but the courts will be able to navigate through such unprecedented territory, as they have done already this week.
If the public were to vote leave again, May’s position would be intact, having ‘done all she could’ to fight parliament’s wishes, and the direction of the country will have been well and truly settled. If they were to reject exit terms, it will have been the electorate’s decision. Eurosceptic outrage would ensue, but it would fade in the face of crystallised public opinion.
It probably won’t happen. But it’s something to think about.