- Most people think Theresa May’s biggest mistake was calling the snap election in which her government lost MPs.
- In fact, it was the decision she made on October 2, 2016, to trigger Article 50 without fully understanding how that gives an advantage to the EU in the Brexit talks.
- Her former chief Europe negotiator, Sir Ivan Rogers, just testified that May pulled that trigger against his advice. It’s as close as we’ll ever get to proof that May did not know the consequences of the decision.
- The decision is the reason Britain is heading for a “no deal” Brexit that will damage the UK economy.
LONDON — The narrative surrounding Prime Minister Theresa May right now says that her government is defined by the strategic error she made on April 18, 2017, when she called for a snap election in June, believing she would increase her majority in the House of Commons and crush Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party.
Of course, the opposite happened: May’s Conservative government lost outright control of Parliament. May clings on, but MPs within her own party are already discussing when, not if, she must be deposed as leader.
That narrative is wrong.
The record books will show that the sudden, unscheduled general election was not her worst decision. Rather, it came six months earlier on October 2, 2016, when she triggered Article 50 before she properly understood how Article 50 actually works. (Article 50 governs the Brexit process: It sets a two-year deadline ending in March 2019, in which the UK must negotiate a trade pact with the EU before leaving. If no agreement is reached, the UK will be forced out of the EU on the most disadvantageous terms possible.)
“I would not agree unequivocally to invoke Article 50 unless you know how Article 50 is going to work”
We got evidence of that error yesterday in the testimony of Sir Ivan Rogers, the UK’s permanent representative to the EU in Brussels, who left that post in January of this year. Rogers was answering questions from the Commons Treasury select committee. He told the panel that May made a crucial error one year ago, The Times and Politico both reported:
Sir Ivan said:
“I did say last autumn I would not agree unequivocally to invoke Article 50 unless you know how Article 50 is going to work because the moment you invoke Article 50, the 27 [other EU countries] dictate the rules of the game and they will set up the rules of the game in the way that most suits them.
“My advice as a European negotiator was that that was a moment of key leverage and if you wanted to avoid being screwed on the negotiations in terms of the sequencing, you had to negotiate with the key European leaders and the key people at the top of the institutions and say: ‘I will invoke Article 50 but only under circumstances where I know exactly how it is going to operate and it’s got to operate like this otherwise this is not going work for me.'”
Business Insider began arguing one year ago that this little-noticed aspect of Article 50 — that the deadline curtails the talks whether the parties like it or not — is the key to the entire process. (We updated that argument here and here and here.)
The negotiation deadline in Article 50 is more important than the substance of the talks themselves. Any member of the 28-nation bloc that triggers Article 50 is automatically ejected from the EU with or without a deal after two years. The EU is incentivised to demonstrate to other European countries that exiting the EU leaves you in a worse position than staying inside. So it is actually to the EU’s advantage to not negotiate at all, and just let the UK flop out of the EU with no deal.
The only way for an Article 50 country to emerge with an advantage is if that nation negotiated the structure of its trade deal before triggering the deadline. (The EU’s “no prenegotiations” stance is a political principle, not a law.)
Without an advance deal in place, Article 50 is simply a trap that lets the EU punish anyone who tries to leave.
May’s decision let the EU “set up the rules of the game in the way that most suits them”
Rogers isn’t some random left-wing remoaner. He was the Tories’ own chief advisor on negotiations until he got fed up with his own government’s blindness as to how Europe actually works. According to Politico, he specifically advised May not to trigger Article 50 without getting an agreement in place before the trigger was pulled. He testified that he was opposed by “various people in London”:
… May’s decision to invoke Article 50 at the end of March gave the EU the opportunity to “set up the rules of the game in the way that most suits them,” Rogers said.
It was that October decision that later forced May to admit this month that “no deal” was now a possibility that the government is preparing for. “No deal,” as some Leavers are slowly starting to realise, is, in reality, the “punishment deal” that puts Britain in the worst-case scenario.
It is this awful blunder — not the election — that is shaping up to be May’s most significant historic legacy.
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