Can UK exit from the EU still be avoided? More arguments for saying it can
In a comment on my earlier post, ‘ObiterJ’ has helpfully drawn attention to an article by the philosopher and commentator Professor A C Grayling in which he states forcefully the legal and constitutional case for parliament to reverse the verdict of the (advisory only) EU referendum. This is clearly helpful if the calamity of Brexit is even now to be averted. But however strong the professor’s legal argument may be, and it is very strong indeed, I can see many MPs and peers being afraid to act on it because on its own it will be misrepresented as an unacceptably arrogant act by the élitist establishment claiming to know better than the millions of people who voted to Leave — a million or so more than those who voted to Remain — and a flagrant breach of party leaders’ promises to respect the result of the referendum.
I believe however that it can also (not instead) be justified on other and much more persuasive grounds as a necessary opportunity for the British people to give their opinion, at the appropriate moment and in the most appropriate way, on whether the terms of our exit from the EU and above all whether the terms of our future relationship with the EU, when these are sufficiently clear and known, are acceptable or not. It would have to be made clear that if these terms are rejected by popular vote, the UK will remain a member of the EU on the same terms as before but able to seek changes and reforms from within. If the terms were to be accepted by popular vote, parliament could be expected (but still not constitutionally obliged) to go ahead and approve them and the UK would leave the EU on those terms.
It could be properly stressed that this would not be a case of “a second referendum” held in the hope that the electorate would change its mind. The 23 June referendum result will have been respected by the discussion with our EU partners of the terms of Brexit and of future relations with the EU. The question put to the electorate now would be quite different: “These are the best terms we can hope to get: do you wish to accept them, yes or no?” Asking the people to decide whether or not to approve the terms can hardly be called undemocratic, nor a betrayal of the Brexiteer voters in June.
Finally, the choice would almost certainly have to be made in a general election, not in a second referendum.
The LibDems have already come out loud and clear in favour of allowing parliament to decide whether to proceed with Brexit or not. Good for them. But this seems unlikely to run unless in the form of a further popular consultation on the terms. And for that to be an option, invoking Article 50 must be deferred until the terms of exit and future relations have been worked out, at least in outline, between the British and other EU governments, and the outcome put to the people of the UK for acceptance or rejection.
The power to decide whether and if so when to invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty rests exclusively in the hands of Mrs May, the prime minister, and no-one else’s. It’s Britain’s only bargaining chip. It must not be carelessly or prematurely thrown away.