The “Leave” campaign won an unexpectedly decisive majority in Thursday’s referendum on Britain’s EU membership. So why do Brexit’s biggest backers already seem so discombobulated?
Commenters described “Leave” icon and possible next prime minister Boris Johnson as “rather pale” and “uncharacteristically subdued” the morning after. Nigel Farage, the leader of the U.K. Independence Party, spent Friday morning distancing himself from the “Leave” campaign’s promise that Britain’s EU funds would be redirected to the National Health Service; and Tory European Parliament member Daniel Hannan admitted that renegotiating Britain’s relationship with the EU wouldn’t actually decrease immigration. Sorry, “Leave” voters who wanted to either curb immigration or fund the NHS! (That’s pretty much all of them.)
Across social media were reports of “Leave” voters waking up with buyer’s remorse. Some were counting on a “Remain” victory and wanted only to “send a message” or press the EU for reforms—a bit like playing a game of chicken with 64 million people’s hands on the steering wheel.
The United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the EU can’t happen until the country sends the EU an “Article 50 notification,” a formal announcement that it intends to withdraw. That notification starts a two-year countdown during which Britain and Europe negotiate the terms of their separation. At the end of two years, regardless of the state of those negotiations, Britain’s out.
So who sends the notification, and when? Neither the EU charter nor the Brexit referendum specifies. (The vote was nonbinding, although both sides assured voters their decision would be implemented.) Prime Minister David Cameron could plausibly have done it on Friday, but he didn’t. Such a step, he said, should be taken by his successor (probably Johnson). Cameron says he isn’t stepping down until October, so there are at least four months before the trigger is pulled. (EU officials and member governments are pressing the Brits to move quickly, but there’s not much they can do about it, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel says she’s comfortable with a more leisurely withdrawal.)
Perhaps Johnson—or pro-“Remain” Tory MP Theresa May, or whoever else succeeds Cameron—will make a point of delivering the notification on his or her first day in office. And if the “Leave” crowd is still riding high, that’s what will happen. But that doesn’t seem to be the way things are going—which is why, even after a referendum that has paused global markets and unseated a prime minister, there’s a strong chance that there will never be a Brexit. How will “Leave” voters feel in October, with the pound still down and the revelations about their campaign’s broken promises? Some will still want out, but how many more will have second thoughts? And Johnson knows that as soon as he triggers Article 50 and begins the actual withdrawal process, the markets will plunge again. Is that how he wants his term to begin? (It’s widely believed Johnson’s decision to back “Leave” reflected something other than a deep-seated commitment to the cause.)
As legal blogger David Allen Green points out, the more time that passes before the Article 50 notification is sent, the less likely it is to happen. Leavers are already stressing that there’s no rush to actually, you know, leave. As Tory MP Liam Fox told the BBC:
I think that it doesn't make any sense to trigger Article 50 without having a period of reflection first, for the Cabinet to determine exactly what it is that we’re going to be seeking and in what timescale. And then you have to also consider what is happening with the French elections and the German elections next year and the implications that that might have for them. So a period of calm, a period of reflection, to let it all sink in and to work through what the actual technicalities are.
So it will be tempting for Johnson (or whoever replaces Cameron) to kick the can down the road a bit. Perhaps he’ll announce a blue-ribbon commission—with experts on European law, and trade policy, and representatives of all the sectors of British industry—to “determine exactly what it is that we’re going to be seeking and in what timescale.” (Such a dilatory strategy would benefit from the fact that EU law is incredibly tedious; everyone would start ignoring the discussion very quickly.) What if the commission meets for six months and then delivers a report to Parliament, which then wants to engage in its customary vigorous debate?
It’s easy to see how a year could pass without an Article 50 notification—at which point, well, the facts on the ground will have changed. (Remember those French and German elections and all their complex implications, whatever they are?) Perhaps the prudent thing to do then would be to call a vote in Parliament (whose members were always firmly on the “Remain” side). Or maybe Johnson, the most popular politician in Britain, would see fit to call a general election in which he’d advocate some kind of sensible middle ground along the lines of “aggressively renegotiating Britain’s membership in the EU.”
Regardless, if there’s one thing the British establishment is good at doing, it’s muddling along. And if ever there were a situation that called for some world-class muddling along, it’s this one.
There are a few caveats to this scenario. The first is that a period of prolonged uncertainty about Brexit might in some ways be worse for Britain than just ripping off the secessionary Band-Aid. That’s possible, though we should remember that a) the Tory leadership goes back a long way with a lot of financial-sector movers and shakers, and if they want to put Brexit on ice they can probably figure out how to send a few quiet signals to the markets; and b) ripping off this particular Band-Aid is going to hurt a lot.
The second caveat is that committed Brexit supporters would feel betrayed, and rightly so. The Conservatives would lose some seats to UKIP—the very outcome Cameron was hoping to avoid when he proposed the referendum. But a prime minister faced with a choice between those losses and the financial calamity of full Brexit might well determine that an emboldened far right is the lesser of two evils.
The biggest concern is Scotland. Scottish voters opted not to split from the U.K. just two years ago by a 9 percent margin; if that vote were to be retaken post-Brexit, the result would doubtless come out differently. That gives Scottish Nationalist Party leader Nicola Sturgeon a strong incentive to force the issue: call Johnson’s bluff, press him on whether he really plans to invoke Article 50, and demand a new referendum, leaving the U.K. with a rump of English and Welsh voters who strongly backed “Leave.” If the Scots’ loyalty to Europe and disgust with English nationalism turns out to be what prompts the U.K. finally to withdraw from the EU ... well, history is full of tragic ironies.