The Blog

Would You Sacrifice Great Britain for Brexit?

For those who expected the UK's departure from the EU to happen quickly, this must be a frustrating time. By resigning in the hours after the Referendum results were in, David Cameron avoided being the one to start the wheels turning towards Brexit.

For those who expected the UK's departure from the EU to happen quickly, this must be a frustrating time. By resigning in the hours after the Referendum results were in, David Cameron avoided being the one to start the wheels turning towards Brexit.

Even Boris Johnson, massive face of the Brexit campaign, also avoided this task by ducking out of the Conservative Party leadership election, supposedly because he was criticised by Michael Gove - a man infinitely less popular than he is. As Boris is rather narcissistic and thick-skinned, I suspect a bigger issue than Gove's Machiavellian manipulations is that Boris knows a poisoned chalice when he sees one.

The first wheel that would need to turn to make progress towards Brexit is Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty being invoked by UK Parliament. This would begin a process of negotiation that can take up to two years for a deal to be made on the UK's relationship with the EU. It is the other EU states, not the UK, which would ultimately approve any withdrawal agreement.

Some seemed to imagine that invoking Article 50 would be a simple process. That on the morning the results were in, Cameron could have just informed other EU leaders, and that would be that. It is much more complicated than that, and there are some obstacles to clear first.

It became very interesting watching social media and other media after the results were announced. The word sovereignty had been mentioned endlessly in the run up to the Referendum, by everyone from Nigel Farage to every Farage-wannabe pub bore, to the rabid far-right social media ranters. Another favourite term used by such people is 'unelected European official'. So it was ironic, once it became articulated that triggering Article 50 wouldn't be as easy as turning off a light, that some Brexit voters were taking the view that we should disregard UK sovereignty and just switch the damned switch. In doing so they echoed enraged outbursts of some of the very 'officials' in the EU they had been ranting about for some time.

The reality is that Article 50 is a long way off - and isn't inevitable. Even pro-Brexit Tory leadership contender Gove has admitted it is unlikely that Article 50 would be invoked before 2017. The Referendum itself is advisory to MPs and not legally binding, and Article 50 is likely to require a Commons vote to be invoked. Lord Lisvane, former clerk to the House of Commons, explained to the BBC: "It is in strictness something that can simply be invoked as a prerogative Act of government - it doesn't need legislation, it doesn't need formal parliamentary approval. But I think, in the somewhat heightened expectations that there will be as matters move forward, there will be very strong pressure to have parliamentary approval of a decision to invoke Article 50."

There are many impatient voices among those who have voted for Brexit. It is almost as though they don't trust politicians and they want it to happen before cunning pro-Remainers can stop a process that many seem to regard as the solution to their problems. Therefore, being told that their vote is not good enough and that MPs have to make the ultimate decision to trigger the start of Brexit will no doubt be infuriating.

This is all complicated by us not knowing how the Commons will look by next year, or how long the Government will stay in place once it has a new leader. The Tories have a very small majority, and most MPs are against Brexit. Citizens who opted for Brexit might claim that MPs voting against Article 50 is an attack on democracy. But MPs could legitimately argue that they were democratically elected and Brexiters much-cherished sovereignty is upheld by their Commons debates and votes.

There would, no doubt, be outrage from some quarters if MPs voted against Article 50, not least from Nigel Farage and far-right nationalist groups. However, many Leave voters are already feeling deceived, for example by promises of vast amounts of money for the NHS. And the markets have already been jittery enough to require intervention from the Bank of England, with lowering interest rates hitting savers. For others, including those who did not vote, there is a greater awareness now of how destabilising Brexit would be, and of the things Brits could lose. Therefore, it is not hard to imagine that the majority of the voting age public could be against Brexit by the time there is an Article 50 vote in the Commons.

Getting the first wheel moving and invoking Article 50 therefore is not as easy as some imagine, and there could be some strong political and economic disincentives from doing so by early next year. But if it does get through the Commons then Scotland will be looking to their own Referendum, which on this occasion would not just be for independence from Westminster but to maintain their position within the EU. Whilst negotiations about the UK separation from the EU cannot start until (and unless) Article 50 is invoked, we know that negotiations have started between the SNP and Brussels.

Will the breakup of the United Kingdom be a price MPs are willing to pay to adhere to a Referendum result that marginally favoured Brexit, but was influenced by a dishonest campaign? It could be that the ultimate question MPs and members of the public will need to consider is 'are we willing to sacrifice Great Britain for Brexit?'.

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