David A. Welch is CIGI chair of Global Security, Balsillie School of International Affairs, and senior fellow, Centre for International Governance Innovation
British Prime Minister Theresa May said over the weekend that she will trigger Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union by March, 2017, seemingly putting Britain on a sure track to Brexit. Don't bet on it quite yet.
Since British voters narrowly opted to leave the European Union 51.9 per cent to 48.1 per cent more than three months ago, there has been essentially no real progress toward Brexit. This is not surprising. No member state has ever left the EU, so there is no template. Preparing the to-do list is a daunting task all by itself, given the extent to which Britain has harmonized laws, regulations and systems for managing inflows and outflows of goods, services, capital and people. As divorces go, Brexit would rank as the world's all-time most complex.
Like sensible people everywhere, Brexit voters wanted to have their cake and eat it, too: greater independence from Brussels, both practical and symbolic; full control over immigration; release from financial obligations; and continued access to the EU's single market.
It is now clear this was wishful thinking. Both out of pique and out of concern not to set too easy a precedent, EU officials and leaders of EU states insist that Britain will get no special treatment. Moreover, they insist that Britain trigger Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union before they negotiate post-Brexit arrangements. This leaves British leaders almost entirely in the dark about what kind of deal they might be able to strike, and only two years in which to strike it once they have given notice. It's a bit like being told to plunk down $50,000 without knowing which car you are buying. Who in their right mind would do it?
Ms. May opposed Brexit before the referendum and has given no indication that she has since converted to the cause. Like any savvy politician, she cannot simply ignore the express will of the voters, but she knows as well as anyone that Brexit would be bad for Britain – and particularly bad for Theresa May. She has no interest in going down in history as a footnote to David Cameron's folly, the overseer of Britain's diminution, and possibly even the person who destroyed the United Kingdom, if Scottish voters prove sufficiently unhappy with the best deal London can strike with Brussels to vote to leave Britain and remain in the EU.
If Ms. May is preparing the groundwork to stay, she is doing it brilliantly. By stretching out the timetable as far as possible without raising anyone's suspicions, she has given ample time to let Brexit buyer's remorse gel. Bankers and major foreign investors such as Nissan have begun to signal their readiness to leave. Local councils are beginning to tally EU funds they will lose. Scottish nationalists are stirring.
Meanwhile, Ms. May has set up key Tory Brexit supporters to fail by giving them thankless cabinet assignments: Boris Johnson (Foreign Secretary), David Davis (EU Exit Secretary) and Liam Fox (International Trade). As time passes, it will become increasingly clear that none can hope to deliver what they promised the voters in June.
Don't be surprised in March if, instead of triggering Article 50, Ms. May calls a snap election asking for a mandate to be released from her Brexit obligation. Striking a stateswomanlike pose, she could persuasively argue there is no good Brexit deal to be had and that Brexit voters, sold a bill of goods by the likes of UKIP's Nigel Farage, voted in June on the basis of incomplete and inaccurate information and have a right to sober second thought. She could avoid the risk of a second referendum by correctly noting that a general election is the traditional means by which British governments seek mandates from the electorate. And she may be able to offer up a sweetener in the form of a "better deal" from Brussels than Mr. Cameron was able to muster.
An election call would catch the opposition in complete disarray. Jeremy Corbyn, who is popular only with his extended family and a diehard group of ideological fellow travellers, would be completely unable to offer a credible alternative. And many recent supporters of the Scottish National Party – more concerned with staying in the EU than achieving independence – would vote Conservative strategically to drive the final nail in the Brexit coffin.
As a result of these manoeuvres, Ms. May would win a massive majority, preside over what could very well prove to be Britain's largest postwar economic boom and go down in history as the greatest prime minister since Winston Churchill for having saved both Britain and the EU from almost certain disaster.
If you were Ms. May, which fate would you choose?