What if no British leader wants to pull the trigger on leaving the EU?

One senior EU diplomat, asked when he expects Britain will inform the EU that it’s leaving, said he doesn’t think it’ll ever happen. Is that possible?

Read this, cribbing from a smart comment left at the Guardian over the weekend, for an argument that it is. The nutshell version: In order to formally quit the EU, Britain needs to formally notify Brussels under Article 50. Normally that’d be David Cameron’s job — but why would Cameron do it? Cameron famously wanted Britain to remain. He made himself a lame-duck prime minister the morning after the referendum due to the outcome. He’ll be succeeded in office by a Tory who’s pro-Leave, presumably Boris Johnson. Why should Cameron fall on his sword again by issuing the Article 50 notice when he could stand aside and leave it to Johnson or someone who actually believes in British independence to do it? He already did his good deed for the Leave faction by agreeing to hold a referendum in the first place (with a simple majority requirement, no less). If the Tories want to follow through on the outcome, they’ll have their chance when Cameron departs in October. He has a legacy to think about.

No problem, then: Johnson will issue the Article 50 notice once he’s prime minister. But … maybe Johnson doesn’t want to do it either. If he does, as the Guardian comment notes, then he’ll bear the political brunt of any backlash to come, be it Scotland insisting on a new independence referendum, a further market downturn, and/or a surge in support for Labour. This advice from Jeff Blehar to Labour seems like basic good sense, for instance:

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is a far-left radical, but if the party dumped him and installed someone more middle-road they might be able to ride an anti-Brexit backlash to retake control of Parliament and then finagle a way out of the Article 50 notice. Cameron would be out, Johnson would be finished, Labour would be in power, and Brexit would be quashed — a complete rout for Conservatives. It’d be easier, then, for Johnson and the Tories if Cameron issued the notice so that Johnson could sweep into office declaring that “what’s done is done” and now it’s time to wind down the UK’s formal associations with the EU responsibly. That might not be enough to prolong what otherwise could be a very short premiership, but it’d give him a better chance than would Cameron washing his hands of the matter and leaving the Article 50 notice to his successor. Essentially, Cameron and Johnson are now tossing a hot potato between the two of them. Who ends up holding it and getting burned?

I think Johnson’s got no choice but to issue the notice and hope for the best. Maybe the potato’s not as hot as everyone thinks:

Scotland will probably not leave the United Kingdom. Beyond the fact that there is something a little humorous about good-hearted liberals cheering on the nationalism of Scotland, which would create a 96 percent white ethnostate, there are serious obstacles to Scotland leaving.

Unlike in 2014, Scotland can no longer delude itself that it will become a Nordic-style social democracy, riding a wave of soaring oil revenues to higher living standards and greater equality simultaneously. The U.K. would also have to agree to the independence referendum, a task they may see as too important to take on while conducting negotiations on its exit. And, really, does Scotland want to cede control of its most important trade relationship — with the new Scotland-less U.K. — to Brussels? Lastly, for any of this to work, the SNP would somehow have to convince everyone to allow it the novel route of separating from the U.K. and gaining its own independent status in the EU just as Britain leaves it. This is an enormous leap for a country that, frankly, offers very little to the EU, besides the chance to spite England…

Next up: economics. Some worry that a kind of trade war will break out between the U.K. and the EU, and Britain will be decimated. That’s hard to envision. Powerful European nations sell a lot of products into the British market. Nearly 20 percent of German-made cars are sold there. And trying to inflict punitive trade terms would bring the biggest wrath on small EU states like Ireland, for whom Britain is their largest trading partner.

All sound medium- to long-term prognostications, but the question is the state of play in October, when Johnson takes over. If markets are still jittery, if Labour is running a public campaign aimed at pressuring the new PM into postponing the Article 50 notice (and why wouldn’t they run such a campaign?), what does he do? The Tories could, I suppose, take a vote of their own parliamentary caucus to see which way Conservatives are leaning at the time, but I’m not sure if there’s any good outcome to that. If a majority votes to issue the Article 50 notice then the entire party’s on the hook for the consequences of leaving rather than just the leadership. If they vote to postpone the notice then they’re betraying the will of the people in the referendum. No matter what happens, if there’s a backlash then Conservatives are on the hook, Cameron’s opposition notwithstanding.

Their best play is probably to lean on Cameron and beg him to take the fall by issuing the Article 50 notice, leaving it to Johnson et al. to negotiate the actual terms of withdrawal with the EU. They could argue, with some reason, that his legacy would actually benefit from effectuating the referendum. His opposition to Brexit is a matter of public record; there’s no chance that issuing the notice will be confused with him supporting independence on the merits, especially since he resigned in the aftermath. If an independent Britain struggles economically, he’ll be seen in hindsight as a sage who tried to avert disaster. If it flourishes economically, he’ll be seen as a hero who followed the people’s will despite his own misgivings, unlike those unaccountable far-flung bureaucrats in Brussels. And since Johnson has little choice but to issue the notice himself once he’s installed as prime minister, Cameron issuing it won’t be seen as setting the country on a path that his successor might not have chosen. The Tories are stuck with Brexit for better or worse. Cameron, who tried to stop it, could frame any actions to implement it as simple matters of honor and duty.

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