A conspiratorial view is circulating among some Leavers, whereby UK prime minister Theresa May is deliberately delaying invoking Article 50 – perhaps indefinitely – in order to achieve her secret goal of never actually leaving the EU, or achieve some sort of ‘fudge’.
This cynicism is understandable. There was a huge anti-democratic backlash after the referendum. The EU and its member-governments have a habit of re-running referenda whose results they don’t like. The SNP wants to veto Brexit. Much of the Labour party would like a second referendum. There is legal action pending in the high court seeking to put the decision on invoking Article 50 into the hands of our predominantly pro-EU parliamentarians. And May herself, of course, was a Remainer.
But the idea that the government will never invoke Article 50 ignores a range of facts.
Theresa May says “Brexit means Brexit” because 60% of Tory voters opted for Brexit, against the will of their own party leader. The referendum was called partly to staunch the haemorrhaging of Tory voters to UKIP. Failing to invoke Article 50 would be electoral suicide. It was also called to manage Eurosceptic Tory backbenchers who, if betrayed now, could bring down May’s government, given its slim parliamentary majority. The idea that there is no pressure on May, that she can do as she pleases, is absurd.
The referendum outcome is also the only democratic mandate that May claims for her administration. The last time a prime minister took office without a general election – when Gordon Brown succeeded Tony Blair in 2007 – the Tories denounced it as undemocratic and demanded a general election. The only way the Tories can fend off these demands now is to appeal to the will of the people as expressed in the referendum.
The Scottish question is also unlikely to delay departure indefinitely. It is absurd to suggest that 1.66m Scottish Remainers should be able to override the UK’s 17.4m Leave voters. The SNP’s ultimate trump card is a second independence referendum. However, Scotland’s economic prospects outside of Britain – particularly one outside the EU – are even worse now than in 2014, and this question proved decisive then. The SNP has no interest in calling a vote they would probably lose. May is not bowing to SNP sabre-rattling – she is trying to find a way to appease Scottish voters and contain the UK’s constitutional crisis.
Nor is it likely that the eventual deal on Brexit would be put to a second referendum, enabling Brexit to be overturned. Once Article 50 is invoked, the UK will be on an irreversible two-year countdown to departure; to get back into the EU, the UK would have to reapply from scratch. Voting down the deal would not salvage Britain’s EU membership, it would only plunge the country into deeper uncertainty.
Finally, what lends this whole notion a truly conspiratorial air is the implication that all of May’s speeches, foreign trips, domestic appointments and institutional reordering are part of an expensive and elaborate charade to mask her true intentions.
The greater risk now is not that the government will not invoke Article 50 at some point. It is that it will define the objectives of the subsequent negotiations in a way that essentially maintains the status quo. The British establishment is overwhelmingly pro-EU and favours stability above all else. Powerful business interests are already lobbying the government to maintain as much of the existing framework as possible. If these groups are permitted to define the terms of the negotiations, the real risk is not never leaving the EU, but rather “Brexit in name only”, an EU-lite where vast areas of policymaking remain insulated from democratic control. If this happens, the opportunity of the current democratic moment will be squandered, with Leave voters becoming even more cynical about and disillusioned with democracy.