The biggest unanswered Brexit question: Can Article 50 be revoked?

emoticon-pointing-a-gun-on-his-head-369There are many unanswered questions about Brexit; hard or soft, customs union or Single Market, ongoing contributions or not (without even mentioning the fate of the NHS’s £350m every week).  This is an area of politics rife with uncertainty.  It’s still not certain exactly who gets to trigger the Article 50 notification under the Lisbon treaty to start the formal leaving process.  This week the High Court heard the challenge from Gina Miller and others asserting that Parliament, rather than the Executive, has to assent.  Whoever wins, the result will be appealed to the Supreme Court before the end of the year, the Prime Minister having given assurance that she will not trigger it before the result is known.  The full uncorrected transcripts of this hearing are available even now on the Judiciary website – an excellent public service.

Yet there is an even bigger unanswered question – one which could instantly transform this headlong rush into a sensible debate at a stroke.  I suspect that many people don’t know it’s unanswered because an answer has been assumed – by nearly everyone.  Here’s the question:

Once triggered, can Article 50 be revoked unilaterally?

The assumed answer is that it can’t. However, let’s look at the Article itself.

  1. Any Member State may decide to withdraw from the Union in accordance with its own constitutional requirements.
  2. Member State which decides to withdraw shall notify the European Council of its intention. In the light of the guidelines provided by the European Council, the Union shall negotiate and conclude an agreement with that State, setting out the arrangements for its withdrawal, taking account of the framework for its future relationship with the Union. That agreement shall be negotiated in accordance with Article 218(3) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. It shall be concluded on behalf of the Union by the Council, acting by a qualified majority, after obtaining the consent of the European Parliament.
  3. The Treaties shall cease to apply to the State in question from the date of entry into force of the withdrawal agreement or, failing that, two years after the notification referred to in paragraph 2, unless the European Council, in agreement with the Member State concerned, unanimously decides to extend this period.
  4. For the purposes of paragraphs 2 and 3, the member of the European Council or of the Council representing the withdrawing Member State shall not participate in the discussions of the European Council or Council or in decisions concerning it. A qualified majority shall be defined in accordance with Article 238(3)(b) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union.
  5. If a State which has withdrawn from the Union asks to rejoin, its request shall be subject to the procedure referred to in Article 49.

On initial inspection, it looks as if an Article 50 declaration might be irrevocable, except by bilateral agreement between UK and EU.  There’s certainly no mention of revoking it.  Both the UK Government and those challenging its power to invoke Article 50 say that it’s not possible.  However, the absence of a mention is not the same as mention of an absence.  As legal commentator David Allen Green points out in his article for the Financial Times, the treaty is silent on revocation.  Assertions about revocability or otherwise have no firm legal basis.  However when asked about whether a unilateral revocation was possible, European Council President Donald Tusk said “Formally, legally, of course yes.”  (About 25 minutes into the video.) Green remarks that this is not merely a political comment, but a legal one too.

This question is much more important that the current court case about who gets to trigger Article 50.  If not revocation is possible (as has been widely assumed in the UK press and political circles) then triggering Article 50 tips the country into a pipeline from which there is no return; Brexit becomes inevitable at that point.  Indeed, this assumption is at the heart of the court case.  If there is no return, then the very triggering of Article 50 starts the inevitable removal of rights from UK citizens which requires an Act of Parliament, hence the need for Parliament to agree to pulling the trigger.

If however the UK Government could decide during the two year negotiating period set out in Article 50 that things weren’t looking so good and unilaterally withdraw, then that changes everything.  Suddenly, the situation changes from a bad-tempered game of chicken into a (possibly) rational exploration of possibilities.  Triggering Article 50 would not be the start of an inevitable withdrawal but would start a process of mutual negotiation with the possibility of reverting to EU membership at any point.

This would also make more sense of the referendum result.  The Brexiteers’ clamour that a 52/48 majority is ‘overwhelming’ is already falling apart.  Rather than the basis for an irrevocable change of national policy and identity, the result could be seen as a mandate to explore fully, fairly and openly the options for the UK outside the EU.  I, and I suspect many of the 48%, would have no difficulty with this position at all.  Furthermore, any vote by MPs at the end of the 2 year negotation would suddenly become very meaningful, rather than a simple take-it-or-leave-it devil and the deep blue sea dilemma.

This would be a much more sensible position for the UK Government to adopt – why would it want to close off avenues unnecessarily?  Several possibilities suggest themselves:

  • The assumption of irrevocability plays into the Leave story that ‘it’s done, get over it’. The war is won, job done, now it’s a matter of working out the details.  The nervousness of the Leavers in recent days seems to suggest that they are worried that this position may be undermined shortly.
  • It also suits those who seek to assure us that Brexit is ‘the will of the people’. This concept, meaningless in the UK constitution, seems to play out such that if any politician can assert that a harmful move is ‘the will of the people’, it becomes unchallengable. And Brexit is the will of the people, right?
  • Another problem for the Government is that this is not a question of UK law, but of European law. The Lisbon treaty is not overseen by the UK courts, but by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) – who would have to rule on the question.  By being seen to be going to the ECJ for a ruling, the Government would be admitting that the ECJ has authority in this matter.  But – the sovereignty of UK law is one of the Leavers’ main desires.   How uncomfortable it would be for the Government to have to go to the hated ECJ and ask a question that might undermine the ‘will of the people’?
  • Finally, a case to the ECJ might take a long time to resolve – thus extending even further the Brexit uncertainty (even if it might end up reducing the uncertainly dramatically in the end).

The very fact that the Government is uncomfortable to ask a question of legal clarity makes it very relevant to ensure that it does get asked.  So, perhaps this might be a new crowdfunding target?  How do we get the issue in front of the ECJ? I think that matters can’t be taken there directly, they must be referred by a national court.  How might that happen in the UK?

Whatever the mechanism, it is vital that this question of the revocability of Article 50 is clarified.  The consequences are immense.  If the UK can unilaterally decide after negotiating that we’re better off remaining in the EU, then that’s the basis for a mature discussion.  If pulling the Article 50 trigger is irrevocable, then we continue in this strange limbo land between parliamentary democracy and executive dictatorship.

Is the Brexit backlash appearing on the continent as well as here?

french_illo1The rise in gratuitous incidents of racial hatred incidents in the UK since the Brexit vote is well documented.  I am now hearing of low-level but troubling incidents of anti-British sentiment appearing on the continent too.  A colleague (and retired doctor) has been in touch:

“My son and two other journalists were in France covering the Tour de France.  One asked for a vegetarian option and was offered pate de foie gras.  It seems unlikely that any competent waiter would not know that pate is a meat product.   The others ordered crepes: when they asked for lemon and sugar they were told ‘none left’.  Yet the Frenchman behind them in the queue was offered both.”

“Two friends of Kate’s were stuck at Calais for 6 hours because only half the border control booths were manned.   When these friends grumbled to Kate she riposted ‘You voted to turn your back on a country that is being attacked.   Why do you expect them to do you any favours?’.”

It’s well known that some French folk seem to hold a grudge against anyone who doesn’t speak their language.  But are these incidents signs of a change in tone ‘over there’, as well as here in the UK?  Please get in touch via twitter @projectfarceuk if you have similar experiences to report.

What small majorities are not the basis for huge decisions – and what to do about it

pie-chartOver the past month we have seen two votes resulting in small majorities.  The first, of course, was the EU Referendum, with the result of 52% Leave and 48% Remain.  The other was the vote by the board of French utility EDF to give the go-ahead for the vastly expensive pair of nuclear power stations at Hinkley Point in Somerset; the vote was 10-7 in favour, but two board members resigned over the issue before the vote (one weeks before, the other at the last moment), so the result might have been 10-9.

That such results are decisive is a simple and straightforward view of democracy – the majority rules.  Benefits of this simple process are clear rules, decisions made (as opposed to postponed), and a mandate for progress.  When the majority is large – say two thirds or more – there is much to be said for going with the majority.  However, when the majority is small – 2% changing their minds in the referendum, or one person out of nineteen altering their position with EDF – the basis for acting on the decision becomes much more questionable.

This situation is particularly difficult when the vote is a yes/no, go/no go decision.  Deciding to leave the EU or build a huge power station is not something one can easily revisit in the light of events (though not impossible, of course).  Changes to the law can be rewritten or revisited, but this kind of momentous binary decision needs to be tackled more carefully.  For this reason, some (sensible) countries set higher bars for great constitutional changes – perhaps a 2/3rds majority in both houses or a combination of parliamentary and popular approval.

Think for a moment.   A vote won by small majority may offer an answer to the question, but is it the best answer?  Presumably those on the losing side have their reasons for opposing – are they to be ignored, or is the small majority a sign that the voters have yet to really find a position that reflects most of their views?

Some novel systems of governance specifically cater for this kind of situation.  Sociocracy, for example, is a process whereby decisions are ‘made by consent’.  One guide to Sociocracy puts it like this:

Consent is not consensus — it does not mean that everyone agrees. It means that nobody is aware of a risk that we cannot afford to take.

What this means in practice is a process of discussion, often with the help of a facilitator, to explore the risks of any decision to a point where they are agreed to be acceptable to all concerned.  It moves the basis of a decision from yes/no to what/when, and with all the risks considered.  This is not to say that risks are removed – that isn’t possible in the real world – but rather that they are considered and accepted as part of the way ahead.

One consequence of this move is that smaller and more step-wide decisions are often made.  The world changes and moves on, some risks disappear, others become larger.  So the trend is to make incremental decisions and refine the data on risks and rewards as we go along.  Suppose that the EU Referendum, rather than on Leave/Remain, was about telling the Government to fully explore the benefits of leaving so that a proper proposal could be presented?  This would probably have gained a larger majority anyway, and would be a step on the journey rather than trying to make an ill-considered leap into the unknown.

The latest moves on Brexit bear out the fact that these risks are relatively unexplored, let alone agreed.  Arch-Brexiteers Bernard Jenkin and Jacob Rees-Mogg have written this week that Leaving is straightforward.  Many others, including former Irish premier John Bruton and legal expert David Allen Green, disagree.   The insistence by some Leave campaigners that ‘The People Have Spoken’ and that there can be no revisiting the decision indicates that they are well aware of the vulnerability of this outcome to further rational debate.

Tiny majorities are not a good basis for huge decisions – whichever way the vote goes.  The size of the mandate is better viewed in terms of the size of the margin, as an indicator to move forward with greater or less certainty.  A small margin is a small mandate; to explore and continue discussions in a direction, not to make a giant leap without any further consideration of the options, risks and return.  It is above all a vote to keep talking, not to act with unwarranted certainty.

Photo©John Cassidy The Headshot Guy® www.theheadshotguy.co.uk 07768 401009Dr Mark McKergow is an international speaker, consultant and author specialising in helping organisation to make progress in tough situations.  He is co-author of four books including the best-selling The Solutions Focus (Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2007) and is a visiting research fellow at the University of Hertfordshire.  His websites are http://sfwork.com and http://hostleadership.com.

Brexit: an irrational act hoping for a rational response?

david-davis-2Since the ‘Brexit is Brexit’ government was put into place last week by new Prime Minister Theresa May, there has been a fair bit of talk about how rational the EU will be in negotiating.  We heard much during the campaign about the bosses of BMW and Mercedes insisting to Germany’s Chancellor Merkel that they would need to continue to sell cars into the UK.  The new Brexit minister David Davis told the Independent this week that his negotiations about the residence rights of EU citizens in the UK would be ”based on the presumption that they [the EU] will be rational about their own citizens interest, which they will be”. 

This assumption of rationality is a nod back to Enlightenment values – the 18th century effort to challenge traditional systems of power, tradition and religion with logic and science.  At the time it was, ironically, a pan-European movement with British contributors (notably John Locke, David Hume and Mary Wollstonecraft ) alongside French and German writers including Voltaire, Kant and Rousseau.  From this basis, Adam Smith became a key founder of economics, still hugely influential today. 

So, of course we might assume that the EU will be rational in their negotiations.  There is one snag with this argument: the Brexit saga is, thus far at least, a blazing advertisement for the limits of rationality in politics. 

The Remain campaign bombarded voters with the predictions of economists, business people, academics and others that Brexit would be an economic shock, costing the British economy something between 1.5 and 3% of GDP.  There would be disruption and uncertainty, new stresses on the Union with potentially conflicting wishes from the UK nations.  Those coming to the UK’s shores from other EU states were shown to be helping and supporting the economy, not taking from it.  And yet, 52% of voters shunned their rational interests and decided instead to ‘take back control’. 

Sovereignty is a political, not a rational, choice.  In a modern, interconnected and interdependent world, all nations choose to share some elements of their self-determination with others in pursuit of better outcomes for their citizens.  Even the shunned Marxist North Korea is a member of the United Nations – it being better to be at the world’s top diplomatic table and abide by its rules than to be a total outcast.  

There is a question of costs and benefits, of course.  It seems that the UK is choosing to reduce GDP, to potentially shut off a valuable source of labour and growth, to jeopardise long-standing academic and trading relationships – for some as-yet-imaginary benefit of ‘not having to do what Brussels tells us’.  (The fact that we were also in Brussels, agreeing what to tell ourselves, is another piece of this Alice-Through-The-Looking-Glass confusion, which must wait for another time.)

So, we await to see if our former European partners will respond rationally to Brexit.  Having given the UK either a new privileged status in Europe (as many across the channel would say) or insulted us with their ‘thin gruel’ (as the oleaginous Jacob Rees-Mogg would say), only to see it rejected in the strongest possible way, the EU 27 could be forgiven for setting aside their rationality in defence of their own political project, the single market.  David Davis, Boris Johnson and others have claimed that in the end, rationality will prevail and the EU will see the sense of breaking their own cherished rules to do the UK a favour.  In the current climate, with the EU wounded by Brexit and the UK in the grip of irrational jingoism, I’m not holding my breath. 

Note to the 48%: Why Brexit may not mean Brexit

May clappingUPDATE: Thursday 14 July 2016.  The post below was written on Monday 11 July, and things seem to be passing out in much the way I was predicting.  Theresa May’s appointment of Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary has taken many by surprise, and her general positioning of Brexiteers in senior Brexit-related roles is a way to endure that when the complexities of the situation start to appear there can be no claim that those involved didn’t have their hearts in it.  Messages from Phillip Hammond and retired civil servant on Radio 4 Today this morning both stressing the need to take it slowly.  We still have no idea what Brexit means – apart from Brexit.

We are all getting up this morning in (yet another) politically new world.  Today’s news is that Theresa May is leader of the Conservative Party and will soon be Prime Minister.  She is pictured on the right, apparently getting ready to lead her party colleagues in a bout of Icelandic clapping*.  Mrs May faces a tough few days getting her government together, and then a tougher few months and years untangled the mess into which the UK has allowed itself to slide.

One of Theresa May’s key statements so far has been ‘Brexit means Brexit’.  To those of us who fought (and continue to fight) for Remain, this sounds like a death knell.  Even though she was (nominally, anyway) on the side of Remain in the great ludicrous EU referendum of 2016, she was lukewarm on the subject and even proposed abandoning the European Convention on Human Rights (even though that would appear to involve leaving the EU, bizarrely).  However, all the main Tory Leavers have assassinated each other, and so Mrs May is probably the least worst person to step in at this stage.

The sudden withdrawal of Andrea Leadsom yesterday seems to have marked the end of the more ludicrous versions of Brexit.  The ashen-faced men in suits surrounding Mrs Leadsom on the doorstep of her campaign headquarters yesterday were ashen-faced for good reason.  Their dream of broadly ‘doing a Farage’, quickly triggering Article 50 and embarking on a Patrick Minford-inspired buccaneering future on the high seas of tariff-free trade have just vanished.  The arrival of Mrs May holds out the hope allowing the wave of Leave enthusiasm to break and dissipate its force onto the stony beach of reality.

So, what is Theresa May saying when she says ‘Brexit means Brexit’?  A few thoughts:

  1.  At this moment, she has to sound tough.  She can’t possibly make any reversing noises at this moment (and for quite a while).  To immediately start backtracking, looking at second referendums, etc would be politically impossible right now and in the foreseeable future.
  2. ‘Brexit means Brexit’ is, when you look at it, the least controversial thing that she can say.  I am, amongst other things, a visiting research fellow in Philosophy at a British university and this statement is as close to meaningless as anything could be.  It must be true, by definition.  How could it not be?  (Indeed, any statement that ‘Brexit means not-Brexit’ would be even more crazy, leading us into a pit of paradox.)
  3. The harder part now, of course, is to expand on what Brexit means, apart from (obviously) Brexit.  I am expecting Mrs May to be making a lot of noise about starting this process in earnest in the coming days.  A new government department, perhaps?  Cabinet Minister with responsibility for Brexit?  Even some kind of commission or inquiry, co-ordinated by select committees?  There will be a lot of noise about ‘getting on with it’.
  4. So, how come this should not be viewed as dispiriting for the 48%?  The clue, as ever, comes from that Whitehall insider Sir Humphrey Appleby (from TV’s Yes Minister in the 1980s).  In this case it’s not actually Sir Humphrey, it’s his boss Sir Arnold who is Cabinet Secretary, who in the very first episode ‘Open Government’ expounds on the law of Inverse Relevance: : “The less you intend to do about something, the more you have to keep talking about it.”
  5. So, expect to see a great deal of talking about it in the coming days and weeks.  That’s not, strange as it may seem, a bad sign.  And Mrs May will certainly be getting things set up.  However, when the new ministers get to their desks late this week, they will be greeted by civil servants clutching huge piles of paper – things in every department that will need to be untangled for Brexit to happen.  Farmers wanting their payments, fishermen wanting their fish, research programmes, medical profession standards, food import/export – this list is endless and reaches into every corner of government.

When the task of Brexit becomes clearer – then we might start to get a handle on what Brexit means.  And it may or may not mean big Brexit.  It may mean very small Brexit indeed.

*hat tip David Baddiel.

You can enjoy the clip about the law of Inverse Relevance below:

The language of Brexit (1): Aphosasis, pink elephants and bargaining chips

pinkelephantAs a professional coach, leadership consultant, trainer of coaches and speakers (but not a mother :-)), I have learned a bit over the past three decades about how language works – how we can use language to focus or diffuse attention, to suggest ideas without saying them, to channel peoples’ thinking in certain ways.  This is the first in a series of posts about the language we are seeing in post-Brexit Britain.

During her interview with the Times, published yesterday, Andrea Leadsom says (transcript here):

So, really carefully, because I am sure, I don’t really know Theresa very well but I am sure she will be really sad she doesn’t have children so I don’t want this to be ‘Andrea has children, Theresa hasn’t’, because I think that would be really horrible but, genuinely, I feel being a mum means you have a very real stake in the future of our country, a tangible stake.

Look at the bit where she says “I don’t want this to be ‘Andrea has children, Theresa hasn’t'”.  It sounds as if she is making a humane point and wanting a fair debate.  However, in raising the issue at all she has succeeded in bringing into the conversation.  As I write, many people are accusing her of incompetence and inexperience in this move, while a few are saying that she is not naïve and well intended to do it.

The posh name for this aspect of rhetoric is aphosasis – bringing something up while denying it or denying that it should be brought up.  Why is this such a powerful device? Surely when someone says that something doesn’t matter, then they should be taken at their word?  Let’s look at what happens here.

When someone says ‘this is not a factor’ then we have to think of the factor in order to work out what is ‘not being said’. The classical example used in many trainings is “don’t think of a pink elephant”… which gets everyone thinking of pink elephants immediately.  Try it for yourself – oh yes, you just did.  See what I mean?  We can’t just ‘not think of something’, we need to think of it in order to work out what not to think about.

What has gone less widely reported is that Leadsom used a similar device earlier in the week.  In a discussion of the future residence rights of those from other EU countries, Theresa May said that this couldn’t be guaranteed at this time.   Leadsom promptly issued a statement saying that “We must give them certainty, there is no way they will be bargaining chips in our negotiations”.   So, Leadsom was the first to use the term ‘bargaining chips’, once again in by way of aphosasis, by saying that’s NOT what was happening.

This use of the term ‘bargaining chips’ was picked up and used widely by many other politicians and commentators. In fact, some think that Theresa May actually used it.  One of my colleagues at the University of Hertfordshire, philosophy professor Constantine Sandis, tweeted ‘Theresa May just called me a bargaining chip 😂 — Constantine Sandis (@csandis) July 4, 2016.  That’s the image we’re left with – but she didn’t call anyone a bargaining chip.  Andrea Leadsom said that he WASN’T a bargaining chip.  See how it works?

The jury is still out on whether Mrs Leadsom is a skilled user of language or a naïve beginner in the world of top-line politics.  The results of the Tory leadership contest are not due until 9th September – so we have a boggling two more months to find out.

Mark McKergow is an international speaker, coach, teacher and author, and is a visiting research fellow at the University of Hertfordshire.  Find out more about his work at http://sfwork.com and http://hostleadership.com.

Bizarre: Owen Paterson claims EU referendum is “the biggest majority in history”

owenpatersonOn BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour (Sunday 3 July 2016), Owen Paterson MP claimed that the EU referendum was “the biggest majority in history”, therefore “over-riding pretty much everything” in terms of parliamentary process.  You can hear him doing it by going to the link above, and listening at 34:05.

Even in an era of post-truth politics, this claim is embarrassingly easy to debunk.  The UK doesn’t have many referendums – three national votes so far.  (The Scottish independence referendum was not, of course, UK-wide.)  These were the original EEC referendum in 1975, the AV voting referendum of 2011 and the EU referendum of 2016.  And here are the results:

1975 EEC referendum

  • Yes: 17,378,581
  • No:  8,470,073
  • Majority: 8,908,508

2011 AV voting referendum

  • Yes: 6,152,607
  • No: 13,013,123
  • Majority: 6,860,516

2016 EU referendum

  • Remain: 16,141,241
  • Leave: 17,410,742
  • Majority: 1,269,501

Far from being the ‘biggest majority in history’, the recent EU referendum is definitely ‘the smallest majority in history’ (assuming that history is of UK referendums).  It’s a majority, no doubt about that.  We’ll come back to the fact that this smallest majority in history was built on deception and misinformation by a small group of press barons and careerist politicians another time.

I suppose that Paterson might be claiming that the Leave vote was the biggest vote in UK referendum history. As you can see from the figures above, it’s true that the number of votes for Leave is the biggest in the table – some 17,410,000 compared to 1975’s Yes total of around 17,378,000.  However, the electorate is bigger now (around 46,500,000) than it was at the time of the 1975 EEC referendum (just over 40,000,000), so one could argue that the Leave campaign gained less support than the Yes campaign in 1975.

Leave, then negotiate. Stupid, yes – for a good reason

HomerSimpsonTory leadership candidate Dr Liam Fox described the process laid out in Article 50 as ‘stupid’.  Yes, he’s right – it’s a dreadful way to go about things.  The EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom described this sequence of events yesterday. Dr Fox further described this as ‘her position’, as if a bit of posturing and stamping of feet might change it.  Erm… It’s not ‘her position’, it’s the process as laid down in the famous Article 50 of the Lisbon treaty, which we’ve agreed to.

Dr Fox is right in one thing – this sequence of events is indeed stupid.  It’s clearly intended to be stupid.  So stupid that no country in their right mind would ever enter the process.  It places the Leaver at a huge disadvantage, having to make the fundamental choice of exit before anything is known about the actual terms.  It is aimed at ensuring that, while it’s possible to leave, the doorway leads to a dark and uncertain place.

Dr Fox seems to think that we can somehow change this.  He’s wrong.  Changing it would require a change to the Lisbon treaty itself, which then constitutionally requires referendums in many EU countries who may not be minded just at this moment to take up their valuable time for another power who has just kicked them in the teeth.

 

Hurry up and wait – Notyexit has arrived

clock notyexitDay six of Brexit, and things are cooling a little bit.  That is, if cooling is the right way to define a Tory leadership contest getting under way under a caretaker Prime Minister, the Labour party close to ripping its own head off and disputing ownership of the body, and Nicola Sturgeon in Brussels opening talks for Scotland with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.

Astonishingly, the mayhem described above seems somehow slightly less manic than the weekend, where no-one had any idea what was going on.  It seems that the Civil Service may be exerting a steadying hand behind the scenes, and the risks of rash moves are receding.  It is clearer now that we have not suddenly turned hard Right, we are not going to be seeking UKIP in the Cabinet, that Vote Leave wasn’t a political party and that there is still no real plan.  More voices are appearing urging caution, reminding us that Parliament is still sovereign.  The conflicting promises and scenarios offered by the Leave campaign are becoming clearer, even though those who offered them are still in hiding or writing articles for the Daily Telegraph (they were journalists, after all).

So, apres le deluge, we have this pause.  Not a celebration after the storm as in Beethoven’s Pastoral symphony, but a curious and unprecedented moment where Prime Minister’s Questions seems to go on as normal and all concerned are playing their roles as if nothing much was happening – even discussing a question about a children’s birthday card competition.  (This is laudable in itself, but seems to many not to really be focusing on the issues at hand.)

One reason for this is that pretty much all those in power are, for the next weeks, not really in power.  It’s not at all usual to have two dead-men-walking facing each other over the dispatch boxes.  As nobody is in a position to make much in the way of a decision, we don’t have a decision of any kind – other than to hurry up and wait.  ‘Notyexit’ has arrived.

Notyexit means that we are not exiting – yet.  Article 50 has not yet been triggered.  Nobody is in a position to trigger it, pending the arrival of a new Prime Minister.  David Cameron has returned from Brussels having not triggered it accidentally, like someone who scratches their nose at an auction and ends up unwittingly buying a collection of Victorian mousetraps.  Lord Turnbull, former head of the Civil Service, has said in an under-reported meeting of the Treasury Select Committee this week (look at 17.31 on Tuesday), that it shouldn’t be triggered until we have a firm and collective idea of what we want, which may not be until Spring 2017 – after which time France and Germany have elections and will have other things to worry about.  That would alarm the other EU leaders, but there seems as yet to be no way they can force us to pull the trigger.

The first signs of Notyexit are the rising stock markets – the FTSE 100 index is now higher than it was last Thursday evening, when the markets were assuming a Remain win.  (The FTSE 250 index of smaller companies is still somewhat lower.)  This doesn’t reflect that Brexit will be fine for the markets – it merely means that for the time being nothing catastrophic will happen, which is itself a step forward from the mayhem of last Friday.  We might hope that experienced hands are now reaching for the day-to-day processes of government and that some greater degree of rationality (made unfashionable by Johnson and Gove over the past weeks) may prevail.

How long will Notyexit continue?  It seems likely to be at least until 9 September 2016, when the Tory party plans to announce their (and our) new leader.  Then whoever that is will come under pressure from Mrs Merkel and the others to trigger Article 50, but will plead for time to build a cabinet and to agree a position.  So that’s October.  There will undoubtedly be calls for an early election – very understandable given the utterly different context from May 2015 when the Cameron government was narrowly given an overall majority.  Politicians hate fighting elections in the winter when it’s cold on the streets… And then there is the not-so-small issue of parliamentary approval for a position and for activating withdrawal.  So Lord Turnbull’s assessment of spring 2017 seems quite feasible, perhaps even optimistic.  Notyexit might be around for quite a while.

And who knows where we will be by then.  If a week was a long time in politics in Harold Wilson’s day, next spring is a galaxy far, far away.

“Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?”

“Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?”. This phrase was famously used by Johnny Rotten (aka John Lydon) at the chaotic conclusion of the Sex Pistols’ last gig in their brief career, at the Winterland Theater, San Francisco, California  on 14 January 1978.  There’s a video below.

Why am I posting this here?  Because I think that both sides are in a position to be saying this today.  The Leave side are seeing those who championed their cause step back from promises and commitments (which actually turn out to be ‘possibilities’) – £350m a week for the NHS, less migration, no financial meltdown, millions of Turks on the horizon like some scene from Zulu.) .  Their standard bearers are now conspicuous by their absence.

The Remain side, on the other hand, have been cheated of a fair discussion, shouted down by a jingoistic press, expert-deniers sticking their fingers in their ears and shouting “La-la-la-I-can’t-hear-you”, and being thrust exaggerated claims by Downing Street and Stronger In which emphasised the economy (which is still tanking, stupid) at the expense of a bigger picture of international co-operation in place of fear, distrust and in the end, war.

Both sides unhappy.  Neither side getting what they wanted.  What now?  I’d rather not recommend a march on Westminster by all concerned with torches and pitchforks, but we need to see some leadership please.  Yesterday’s exchanges seemed a little light-hearted, when the Prime Minister has just volunteered us for the biggest crisis in the UK since World War II.