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The Brexit Vote Didn't Decide Much After All

Therese Raphael writes editorials on European politics and economics for Bloomberg View. She was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.
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When Britons voted to leave the European Union in June, the government assumed it had sole authority to chart the U.K.'s path out of Europe. Turns out it was mistaken. The "remain" camp may have lost the war over whether Britain stays in Europe, but it could win the peace. 

Those who opposed leaving Europe -- which include many within the governing Conservative party -- are forcing the government to seek a consensus about the divorce talks. One avenue is legal. The U.K.'s Supreme Court has been asked to decide whether the government must seek parliament's approval to start exit negotiations by triggering Article 50 of the EU's founding Lisbon Treaty, after Prime Minister Theresa May lost her case in a lower court last month.

The government claims that the Brexit referendum, through a centuries-old principle called the "royal prerogative,"confers all the authority it needs to start the process. Opponents argue that while parliament gave voters the power to decide whether to leave the EU, it did not sign away all rights to have a say on when or how. 

QuickTake Brexit

The government has to prepare for the possibility that the courts will rule against it for a second time. On Wednesday night, after six hours of debate, the House of Commons voted 448 to 75 to back May's timetable for triggering Brexit. The government claimed that as a victory, but the non-binding vote highlights the pressure May is under at home.

May had made her first major concession to Brexit opponents on Tuesday by agreeing to publish an outline of the government's negotiating objectives -- after months of claiming that the government could not possibly reveal its negotiating hand without jeopardizing national interests. Keir Starmer, the Labour Party's Shadow Secretary for Exiting the EU, noted that Labour still expects to have a say over the terms of the split. That may hardly seem threatening given Labour's weakness, but it's not hard to see how things could start to look different next year.

Whatever the Supreme Court decides, remainers have been winning the more important argument in the court of public opinion. Half of those polled recently said the government is doing a bad job handling Brexit, and that was before negotiations even started. May remains popular, but her honeymoon won't last forever. The further she wades into the details of Brexit, the harder she will find it to keep all sides happy.

The U.K.'s most basic interests -- retaining access to the European single market and the permission for U.K. financial-services firms to operate there, along with the ability to efficiently attract skilled labor -- all conflict  with the hard-line divorce many Brexiters insist on. Even the question of how to deal with Scotland is fraught. Scotland voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU and demands to be consulted about the departure terms. If May ignores Scottish demands, she risks further inflaming Scottish nationalism and triggering another referendum on Scottish independence. If she seeks to appease Scotland, she will anger many Brexiters.

That isn't to say, though, that there is any serious hope that Brexit gets cancelled. Even Labour has pledged to respect the referendum result. But increasingly there are strings attached.

Labour has demanded that the government set out its plan with, as Starmer put it, "enough detail and clarity to end the circus of uncertainty" over the cost of continued access to the single market and the customs union (which determines Britain's trade arrangements with non-EU countries), among other things. Legally, May can probably ignore these conditions; politically it will be more difficult.

May hasn't faced an election as party leader, and has a slimmer majority in parliament after losing a mini-election last week. Former business minister Anna Soubry claimed that some 40 Tories were prepared to support Labour demands that the government provide more details about its Brexit negotiations. And the rough-and-tumble of British politics -- in which such debates are played out in the theater of parliament and dissected by a partisan press -- makes it impossible for May to continue to rise above the fray.

Going with a plan to Brussels, Paris, Berlin and Bratislava without striking some kind of consensus at home, especially in her own party, is risky. Tory governments have torn themselves apart before over Europe. If remain proponents are shut out, the prime minister risks losing the ultimate prize in British politics: winning an election of her own and keeping power.

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

To contact the author of this story:
Therese Raphael at traphael4@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Jonathan Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net