Theresa May must end drift on Brexit after the Bank Holiday

The deeper meaning of “Brexit means Brexit” doesn’t get any easier as time goes on. Theresa May will have to clarify quickly after the Bank holiday. Arch Brexiteer Iain Duncan Smith claims Article 50 will be triggered early in the New Year.

“I have spoken to them and I am certain that these characters – David Davis, Liam Fox and Boris Johnson, and the prime minister by the way – are very clear that they need to get on with triggering article 50 as soon as possible early in the new year.

This would appear to defy legal attempts to require a parliamentary vote on a process which leaves the negotiating cards stacked in favour of the EU more than the UK.

London mayor Sadiq Khan’s call to delay triggering Article 50 until after the French and Germans elections next year is unlikely  to find favour in Whitehall, fearing a “ punish Britain “ reaction from the EU.

In a long analytical piece on Monday the Guardian was none the wiser about the timing.

  May has repeatedly said she would not trigger article 50, the two-year process by which Britain must leave the EU, before the beginning of next year. Some think March looks a likely moment

But there is a persistent rumour that late 2017 or even early 2018 is more likely, partly because it could take Whitehall at least that long to be ready before triggering the two-year exit talks, and partly because Dutch, French and German elections will get in the way.

That would mean Britain would not leave the EU until late 2019, which the pro-Brexit camp as well as the EU, which wants Brexit over before the 2019 European elections and the new EU budget in 2020, have said emphatically is not desirable.

Brexit tactics play a part on the Labour leadership campaign. Jeremy Corby’s rival Owen Smith says he will “fight tooth and nail” to keep the UK in the EU and said that under his leadership, Labour would oppose the triggering of Article 50 in a future Commons vote unless certain conditions were met.

He rejected accusations he was trying to override democracy, saying if Labour believed working people were worse off by the settlement he could “legitimately put it back to the British people”.

That would mean a second referendum. But on what precisely?

John Rentoul whom we have discussed before in Slugger puts his finger on one key objection.

It would be quite sensible to have two referendums, one on the principle of EU membership and another on the terms of the exit deal..  But that wasn’t the deal. If we needed a second referendum, that should have been specified before we went to the polls for the first one. It wasn’t…. To say now that we need a second referendum looks like the complaint of a bad loser.

Academic associates of mine  agree that  the verdict of the referendum need not be for ever. But they’ve produced convincing arguments for taking it slowly  (Times Letters £)

A second referendum could consult the public on the precise form Brexit should take. Alternatively, a general election could be fought on this issue. The problem is that all of this would have to happen within the two-year window granted by Article 50. It is only after the negotiations have been concluded that we will have any clarity.

That delay and the difficulty of renegotiating UK-EU relations speak against a second referendum as a matter of practice. What would happen if the electorate voted to reject the deal? The UK could find itself outside the EU and also deprived of the package it negotiated.

More importantly, the UK is a parliamentary democracy. Political decisions are made in parliament, not by the electorate. On these grounds it may be preferable to call a general election with a particular focus on Brexit rather than another referendum. Whatever happens, it is incumbent on parliament to exercise final and independent judgment on the meaning of Brexit based on long-term political stability, economic prosperity and national interest.

Dr Jo Murkens, Department of Law, LSE; Dr Cormac MacAmhlaigh, Edinburgh Law School, University of Edinburgh

…to float a second referendum now is tricky. Whether it is legally possible for the UK to turn back after triggering Article 50 is unclear — if it isn’t, a referendum vote to stay in after all could leave us in limbo. The promise of a referendum would play havoc with our negotiating power in Brussels. The public have not, on the whole, changed their minds.

Those who want to reverse the vote would be better biding their time. If public opinion does shift clearly against Brexit, a second referendum will be justified. Otherwise, the sustained will of the people should be respected.

Dr Alan Renwick

Deputy director, Constitution Unit, University College London


Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London