Revoke Brexit? Don’t Hold Your Breath

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The U.K. Parliament will try this week to take control of Brexit from a severely embattled prime minister. What will follow is anyone's guess, but it is likely to include voting on the largest range of options for leaving the European Union that lawmakers have formally considered.

One of those options is cancelling Brexit altogether.

The idea would almost certainly be rejected by Parliament. But just debating the possibility of reversing course would itself be hugely important in shaping what follows.

Brexit can be cancelled if the U.K. revokes its 2017 decision to trigger Article 50 of the EU treaty, which gave notice of the intention to exit. That would have to be done before exit day itself, now extended to April 12 by the EU.  

Until now, few lawmakers seriously entertained the idea. For one thing, revocation would raise deep questions of democratic legitimacy. How could Parliament decide to reverse the result of the nationwide popular referendum of 2016?

Moreover, the politics of revocation make it all but impossible to carry out. Both major political parties made commitments to honor the referendum result. While Labour MPs may be sympathetic to the idea, about two-thirds of them represent leave-voting constituencies and would have a hard time explaining it to their voters.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has viewed leaving the EU as necessary for adopting some of the socialist policies that he would want a Labour government to pursue, and which would run afoul of EU rules. Brexit enthusiasm among Conservative Party stalwarts and the core party membership poses an even higher barrier for any Conservative MP considering revocation.

Even so, revocation is having a moment now. A petition to nullify Brexit garnered over 5 million signatories in a few days. That far exceeds the 100,000-signature threshold to trigger parliamentary debate. Organizers of a massive London protest that took place on Saturday say that the numbers marching in favor of a second referendum or cancelling Brexit altogether reached over a million (even if Brexiters dispute the number, they cannot argue with the aerial footage).

Another thing giving force to the Revoke argument are reports that Prime Minister Theresa May will side with hardline Brexiters in favor of an economically perilous no-deal departure if lawmakers don’t approve her exit plan after twice rejecting it, rather than seek a long extension.

It may seem difficult to imagine a U.K. leader, let alone a Conservative one, backing such a drastic and reckless move. A no-deal exit would be quick and painful. It has been debated, discredited and rejected by Parliament already. But May's priorities have always been to "deliver Brexit" and put Britain back in control of its borders by liberating it from the EU's free-movement-of-labor rule, something leaving without a deal would do.

Finally, only two of the options parliament may consider — No Deal and Revoke — can be accomplished in the short period of time before the May 23 elections for the European Parliament. Many MPs on all sides of the debate are keen to avoid having the U.K. participate in those elections.

Most lawyers argue that the prime minister lacks the power to nullify the Article 50 action without legislative action by parliament (rather than a simple vote in favor). That case is made in a paper for the U.K. Constitutional Law Association by Gavin Phillipson and Alison Young.

Another authority on U.K. and EU law, Jolyon Maugham, has argued that the prime minister does have the discretion to reverse the Article 50 action. His is a minority view, but he’s also pointed out that as a practical matter, a judge would be unlikely to force the U.K. to leave the EU if parliament expressed a wish to the contrary.

Whether or not the issue ever comes before a judge or the British public, the debate over revocation has revealed significant changes in the political landscape as former pro-Brexit luminaries start to reconsider.

Oliver Norgrove, once an enthusiastic staffer in the campaign for leaving the EU, tweeted earlier this month: “I’m now at the stage where I think if we end up not leaving, it’ll be a blessing. Let’s face it, my side just doesn’t deserve it.”

The Brexit process, he said, had been “self-deception on an almighty scale.” He was welcomed by Remainers as a prodigal son.

The needle began to move for Norgrove when he realized that Brexiters had missed the significance of the Irish border. Accustomed to ignoring Northern Ireland, they had overlooked the fact that the U.K. couldn’t leave the EU customs union without reinstituting controls at the border between British Northern Ireland and EU-member Ireland, with potentially disastrous political and economic consequences.

Many Brexit proponents were attracted to the idea that the U.K. would no longer be subject to EU rules and could escape its bureaucracy. But to make Brexit work — for the Irish border, not least — Britain would have to stay tied to EU rules without having a say in how they are made.

Leave campaigners systematically denied this trade-off. They insisted first that the EU would cave in to U.K. demands. Later, they insisted that technology would solve the problem. Norgrove says he came to see it as mis-selling on a massive scale. “I was part of a systemic deliberate and desperate campaign of political lying,” he told radio host James O’Brien.

Roland Smith, another Leaver turned Revoker, argues that euroskepticism has lost its way, evolving from a healthy critique of EU processes into something like gospel. Its dirty little secret, well-hidden throughout the Leave campaign, is that the euroskeptics who became ardent Brexiters had no idea what an acceptable exit would look like. His critique is devastating.

Even if the Revoke debate doesn't go far in Parliament, as I suspect it won't, the second thoughts of many Britons who once favored leaving the EU are significant. Whatever happens in the weeks ahead — including a possible change of prime minister — the country's leadership must reckon with what went wrong, and that will take courage and honesty.

Protestors unfurled a banner on Saturday quoting words spoken in 2012 by former Brexit secretary and Brexit-supporter David Davis: "If a democracy cannot change its mind, it ceases to be a democracy." The irony is that Davis had been criticizing the rigidity of EU rules at the time.

Some Brexiters have changed their minds. Now, nearly three years after the vote to leave the EU, British lawmakers must decide whether the country has and what to do about it.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Therese Raphael writes editorials on European politics and economics for Bloomberg Opinion. She was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.

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