1st February 2017
Sometimes you get things correct.
Over the last year or two, I have set out here, or at the FT or on Twitter, the following things which seem to have weathered well:
– that the hurdles to repeal of the Human Rights Act would be difficult (that Act’s repeal is now delayed or put off altogether);
– that the EU referendum was not legally binding (it wasn’t, and that is why there had to be an Article 50 Bill – and note this was pointed out before the referendum); and
– that the necessary implication of Theresa May’s stated views was that the UK would be seeking to not be part of the Single Market (which was then admitted by the Prime Minister in a speech a week afterwards).
Getting things right is nice, but sometimes it is far more interesting when things don’t go as you think they will.
Last summer just after the referendum result I thought it highly unlikely that the Article 50 notification would be sent, if it was not sent straight away.
(A couple of times I even slipped and said “never” but that was only my view for a few hours. Usually I was careful to say it was improbable not impossible.)
I am not a fan of the EU and have never written in favour of it. Had I been able to vote in 1975, I would have voted against membership. I have opposed every EU treaty since Maastricht. So this was not wishful thinking (as far as I can tell). In fact, it was almost the reverse.
One reason the UK should never have joined the EU is because it would be so difficult for the UK to leave. UK law and policy became entangled with the EU so much one could not see where one began and the other ended.
Given this immense entanglement (which will take years, if not decades, to chop away), I thought the government would go for the path of least resistance. Very few people with power in Westminster and Whitehall want the UK to leave the EU. There is a national habit of putting things off: procrastination is a principle of the British constitution. And there are always events to knock things off course.
I just though there would be delay after delay. And I still think this is a fair view, on the basis of information available last summer.
So what changed?
Two things changed. Both are significant. The first thing is somewhat amusing to admit (that I thought a politician would be rational), but it needed the second thing. The first one by itself was not enough.
The first thing is that Theresa May became determined for political reasons to push for notification, regardless of any other factors, and even if there was no rational basis for such speed. This determination was shown in her conference speech.
The second thing is that it became plain the two year period of the Article 50 process could be circumvented: things could be put off and dealt with as part of transitional arrangements and adjustment phases.
So in early October, as the facts changed, I changed my view: I still thought notification more unlikely than not, but it was more finely balanced.
And in January, as the sheer political determination became starker, and the thinking about offloading things into transitional arrangements and adjustment phases became more commonplace, I changed my view to the notification becoming more likely than unlikely.
And today’s Commons vote on the Article 50 Bill now makes the notification highly probable.
None of this makes the process of Brexit any easier: the UK is still moving towards a complex and unpredictable and time-consuming predicament. But the path to the Article 50 notification which commences the formal Brexit process has become clear.
My only prediction now is that those who doubted that the Article 50 notification would ever be seen will get a good-natured ribbing by those who never had such doubts.