When will the United Kingdom invoke Article 50?
Or will it at all?
With the resignations of Cameron, Boris Johnson, and now Farage, it seems few leading politicians are keen to “own” Brexit and its consequences. If those individuals wish to step back from accepting the consequences of Brexit, might that tendency spread more generally?
If your thoughts run along the lines of “they have to do this, otherwise there will be violence in the streets,” or “they have to proceed with Article 50, otherwise British government will have no legitimacy,” I say Beware The They!
They, they, they. Try he and she. Word on the street these days is that Article 50 won’t even be seriously considered before the French and German elections, which means Fall 2017 at the earliest. OK, so let’s say it is October 2017, and Brexit is more unpopular because the intervening uncertainty has created a recession. Do you, as an individual British legislator, wish to claim an ownership of the process at that point? If Farage didn’t want to own it, and so quickly realized that, why should you pick up the bag? Yes I know most individual constituencies, evaluated as constituencies, were pro-Brexit. But they were also anti-recession and anti-chaos, and so you must choose between giving them the means they want and giving them the ends they want.
It’s already being debated whether Article 50 invocation requires an Act of Parliament or not. I can’t judge the constitutional issue (can anyone?), but practically speaking it seems to me that if Parliament says it requires their explicit consent than it does. Similarly, if Parliament washes its hands of the matter, who or what can overrule them and make them vote if they don’t want to? So I see a few scenarios in this multi-stage game:
1. Parliament wants no vote in the matter, and claims it doesn’t have to vote. In this scenario, the new PM may not act on it either. Note that Theresa May was originally pro-Remain, she will believe that Article 50 will worsen the recession and thus her electoral prospects, and she wouldn’t have parliamentary approval as cover for pushing the nuclear button. If I were in Parliament, with a moderately pro-Leave constituency, I would be rooting for this scenario. No one acts, but everyone can blame other parties for not acting.
2. Parliament cannot run away from its voting rights, or even positively seeks to assert them. Under this scenario, commentators may suggest that Parliament as a whole has to desire Brexit, if only to keep its legitimacy. But recall that before the referendum, Parliament as a whole was about 3-1 pro-Remain. Why chase after a voting right you don’t wish to have? If Farage didn’t want to stick around for such an outcome, why should you? So vote Remain, claim you had initially campaigned along with pro-Remain forces, claim you are sticking to your original electoral mandate, and see what happens to your political future. Say it is “the others” who are detaching Parliament from the will of the people.
3. The 2017 PM and Cabinet take to the British people an alternative, non-EU vision of what Leave would look like, but they don’t lie too much to make it look so great. They hold a second referendum, not on Leave vs. Remain per se, but on whether that is a satisfactory target option for a Leave scenario. In fact they can design the plan to fail simply by being somewhat realistic. The option fails, and the politicians claim everyone has to go back to the drawing board. I get sick of my Twitter feed being full of so much Brexit talk for so many years, and I stop following so many British people.
4. The trickling, tortuous uncertainty through Fall 2017 is so economically costly that everyone realizes a decision must be made and soon. “Leave” is the only decision which is focal, because of the referendum, and so Leave is set in motion and Article 50 is invoked. You will note that this scenario, while it sounds plausible, is a bit at odds with waiting until Fall 2017 to begin with. So the reality of waiting today has to lower the probability of this one somewhat.
5. The trickling, tortuous uncertainty through Fall 2017 is so economically costly that everyone realizes a decision must be made and soon. “Leave” is a more focal decision, but it still takes years to negotiate and consummate, thereby ensuring the uncertainty continues to kill the British economy. “Leave” therefore is discarded through political shenanigans and Remain rules the day because only the status quo ex ante can be brought about so quickly.
6. In the meantime, the EU does something really stupid, which includes the steady insulting of the British people and government, and almost everyone in the UK wants to leave by Fall 2017.
6b. In the meantime, Putin does something really stupid, and English opinion shifts strongly to Remain and Remain comes about through emergency national security channels.
7. In the meantime, the French and German elections require those governments to reassert at least partial control over their borders vis-a-vis immigration. This right is then offered to the UK, if only verbally, and the support for Leave more or less collapses. There is the beginnings of negotiation for a new EU treaty, in the meantime a bunch of EU nations including the UK break the rules of the old treaty, yet without being punished. This strikes me as one of the more plausible scenarios.
I get how #4 and #6 pretty clearly lead to actual Brexit, as does one branch of #2, but when you look at these scenarios as a whole, I don’t think the chances for an actual Brexit are so overwhelmingly high. The key obstacle is getting so many pro-Remain legislators to attach their names and reputations to a scenario which Johnson and Farage already are running away from. That is just not so easy.
Didn’t the Sex Pistols sing about “…now I got a reason to be waiting”?
Yes, British legislators do have a reason to be waiting. They are waiting. Should that reason become stronger or weaker over time? Why think that “weaker” is so obviously the correct predictive answer? There is no clear deadline forcing their hand.
In the 1960s and 70s, America and the UK had riots all the time. I’m not saying this is good! (Though it did lead to an excellent Clash song.) But once underway, in fact it is politically acceptable in many situations, or sometimes even politically desirable.
Addendum: Here are a few more points to consider:
a. Parliamentary systems behave very differently when off their steady-state stability path. There is now a power vacuum, no courts to produce definitive rulings, and the executive and legislative branches of government end up as bankrupt at the same time and in the same ways. Things are stuck and the traditional local comparative statics simply do not work. So our usual intuitions for what is supposed to happen in British politics may not be so reliable, and indeed few people had predicted the outcomes the country has received so far, including all the resignations.
b. The status of the Queen will either go up a lot or down a lot. Many people still believe, if only in inchoate form, that she is there for moments of constitutional crisis. But a moment of truth is coming where she will have to cough up her creative ambiguity, or not! If she does nothing, which I consider the more likely scenario, the monarchy will become all the more irrelevant. If she issues a pronouncement of some kind, she will either be a grand heroine or look pretty bad.
c. In some ways the EU had taken on the “backstop” role formerly held by the British monarchy. This is not widely understood. And indeed without the EU, it seems British politics is quite chaotic. This is a huge embarrassment for the Leave forces, and few if any of them foresaw this or are willing to admit this now. But that is in fact how British politics has been evolving over decades. To a keen reader of Bagehot, however, this does not come as a surprise, and it is another reason why the Leave vote was a huge mistake.