If I was glum as a child, my Mum would say, “Cheer up, it might never happen.” And you know, it might not.
So our Prime Minister – and he still is – Mr Cameron, said this morning he wouldn’t invoke Article 50. He’s off. No, he’s leaving it to his successor to sort that out. By the way, Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty says, “A Member State which decides to withdraw shall notify the European Council of its intention”. So the government has to formally notify the European Council that the UK intends to leave. At that point, we are still in the EU: we are not out until we have negotiated “the arrangements for [our] withdrawal, taking account of the framework for [our] future relationship with the Union”. That agreement needs to be ratified by member states and the European Parliament. Now that could take a while, so Article 50 specifies a two-year cut-off. Unless the Council decide to extend it.
Interestingly, Mr Boris Johnson, the man the bookmakers say is most likely to succeed Mr Cameron, has said Britain should not immediately trigger article 50. He said there was “no need for haste” and “nothing will change in the short term”. It could take until the Autumn before he, or some other prominent Conservative, takes over as PM. Whoever it is, they will appoint a new Cabinet and discuss with them what to do about Article 50.
By this time a lot of other things may have occurred. The UK economy may suffer (further) from crashing share prices, a weakened pound and the withdrawal of foreign investment. The mood among the electorate, as reported by opinion polls and so on, may have significantly altered. People will worry about their pensions and their job security. They may start to believe statements by some previously trusted Leave campaigners that immigration won’t be significantly or quickly reduced by exiting the EU.
Meanwhile, the EU won’t be unaffected by all this. They too could be taking an economic hit. They might find themselves ready to be more accommodating.
So the referendum decision might start to lose its moral legitimacy, making harder for the new PM to push for an early exit. But what about its actual legitimacy? Isn’t it binding on the government? No, it isn’t. Because parliament is sovereign and referendums are generally not binding in the UK. So the PM could put it to parliament, where our MPs are overwhelmingly in support of remaining in the EU. Could the PM get away with it? Well, that depends on whether the mood of the electorate is modified by events.
So the longer the UK delays invoking Article 50, the less likely it is to be invoked at all. My Mum was right, it might never happen.