May’s defeat reveals the brutal reality of Brexit – let's revoke Article 50 and take time to decide our next step

We have one last chance to pause the clock. We can still make time to talk together about what we really want

Jolyon Maugham
Wednesday 16 January 2019 12:44 GMT
Theresa May dodges question proposing she revoke Article 50 if her Brexit deal is voted down

Theresa May was right about one thing, her startling Brexit defeat has settled nothing, and made our future, if anything, more murky than before. So then, where do we go from here?

Labour seems fated to lose its no confidence motion this evening; the government will remain in place. Theresa May appears determined not to extend Article 50; absent action we will leave with no deal at the end of March. There is no majority anywhere for that ruinous outcome.

Even May has said she does not believe no deal would deliver on the result of the referendum. Parliament wants a better deal; but the EU is clear that nothing else is on the table.

It’s an uncomfortable truth if you voted Leave that much of this was baked in from the start. It gives me no pleasure to observe that the campaign made contradictory promises to get “Leave” over the line.

Leaving the EU would enable us to shut the door on globalisation, its victims were told. At the same time, those who felt the UK was suffering from Europe’s stifling social model were prescribed a Brexit that would kick off the regulatory clogs, and embrace a glorious global future.

You needn’t take my word for it: here’s what Vote Leave’s Campaigns Director said: “Eurosceptic groups have been divided for years about many of the basic policy and political questions.” And he went on to suggest that to try and resolve that dispute in its Brexit campaign would open “an unwinnable debate”.

These are uncomfortable truths – but if you’re serious about finding a way for the country to move forward I’m afraid there’s no way of avoiding them.

To crystallise Brexit as a reality is to shatter its mandate. And if, like me, you voted to Remain this raises genuine legitimacy problem around the referendum. If you are a government which wants to bring reasonable Remainers with you, and if you truly have the interests of the country at heart then you should, you need to accept this as a genuine concern.

A true statesman would have seen these problems from far off and embarked upon that conversation even before we voted in the referendum. A stateswoman would have recognised these failings and embarked upon the exercise when the vote came in on 23 June 2016.

Those opportunities have gone and we cannot have them back.

But it is not too late. We have one last chance to stay the hands on the Article 50 clock. We can still make time to talk together about what we really want.

Some say this exercise would require the EU’s consent. They fear, with justification, that the EU wants an end to this process and so would not agree. Article 50, it is true, says that without the unanimous consent of the other 27 member states we cannot extend the March deadline. But I believe we have the right to revoke and reconsider.

The Wightman decision – in a case I brought together with six Scottish parliamentarians – makes it clear we can decide to pull the Article 50 notice. It also says that we can do this without the permission of anyone else – as an expression of our national sovereignty.

In giving that judgment the Court of Justice cautioned that, to be effective, a revocation of the Article 50 notice must be the expression of an unconditional decision to remain. But if you dip below the surface all is not quite so clear.

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There is no denying the reality that the UK has an ambivalent relationship with the EU now and is likely to have one for some considerable time. But these mixed feelings – which run through us as a people and our institutions too like seaside rock – do not make it impossible to revoke Article 50.

Similarly no one suggests that if we were to revoke Article 50 now we would be barred from re-notifying our desire to leave later, if that was the result of our conversation. That is a decision the then government would be free to take. The warning from the Court of Justice was intended as a bar only on using revocation as a ruse to extend the negotiating period. European law will accommodate the messy reality of where we are as a nation.

It is legally possible. And it is the right thing too. We have to believe that it is not beyond us, collectively and in good faith, to find a way for a national conversation to take place. We must be ready to believe we can go forward together. Because at the end of the day there is nowhere else to go. We must revoke and reconsider.

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