Is it time for Theresa May to admit that Brexit is impossible and retract the Article 50 notice?

If Brexit goes ahead in any form, it would need exceptionally-good government to address all the resulting challenges. The parliamentary chaos of recent weeks has shown a government a long way from this. Is it time to admit that Brexit can’t be delivered?

Theresa May has given it her best shot. It is hard to see anything else she could have done to make Brexit work. The game-changer of the last few weeks has been the sheer level of parliamentary dysfunction. It’s now clear that Brexit can’t happen on 29 March because of the sheer volume of legislation to be handled between then and now. If it can’t handle that, it has no chance of the sort of wise restructuring of our arrangements that would be needed for any form of Brexit to have even half a chance of working, and it has no chance of the tough decisions having widespread public support — particularly when they hit the jobs and prospects of people who voted Leave.

Under normal circumstances, when a government has lost credibility it would be time for a General Election. But right now, our two biggest parties are both deeply split. Neither can put forward a manifesto that’s more than an awkward compromise, so neither could form a credible government.

Retracting the Article 50 notice has to be done in good faith, so couldn’t retract it in March to re-issue it in May. But retracting it, and agreeing not to attempt another referendum for (say) five years, gives space for the country to stabilise.

Soon after the referendum, wrote something in which I argued that Europe has been the stable context against which British politics is defined for a very long time — so the European Union is only the latest chapter in that process. In voting to Leave, we’d attacked that containment, leaving our political system in spasm. The words have become ever more apt as we get closer to the scheduled date of of Brexit.

On top of this, we are placing a huge burden on our civil servants, the overwhelming majority of whom support continued EU membership. They have responded with characteristic professionalism, but it places a huge burden on dedicated people to ask them, day in, and day out, to make the best of a bad job. As things get more fevered, the risk of stress-induced mistakes goes up. This doesn’t help.

Personally, I think the cleanest solution is the present Liberal Democrat policy of a People’s Vote with the option to Remain. This should take place after the alleged criminal actions from the Leave campaign have been investigated properly, so the regulations can be changed both to avoid future infringements and to minimise interference on Twitter and Facebook from outside the UK. But we don’t have the luxury of the time this would take.

In the present state of crisis, we are heading rapidly to the point when the country needs Theresa May to show some wise leadership, admit that Brexit can’t be delivered, and retract the Article 50 notice. This is something that has to come from Theresa May. The reaction from some would test her leadership, but the test would be less cruel than attempting the impossible task of trying to deliver on the impossible promises of the Leave campaign.

* Mark Argent was the Liberal Democrat candidate in Huntingdon Constituency in 2019 and blogs at

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  • Mark, you are right that “present Liberal Democrat policy [is for] a People’s Vote”. However, if we reach Friday with no deal in parliament or extension agreed then policy switched to revoke – this is exactly what we passed this weekend at conference.

    We may well all be marching in London next weekend to revoke article 50.

  • I would insert the words “well past” in the headline myself, but I’m a grumpy so and so

  • As Tom Brake said on Saturday, we are four days from activating the “nuclear football” and calling for parliament to revoke Article 50

  • Peter Martin 18th Mar '19 - 12:57pm

    Can I put this the other way around? Isn’t it time for Remainers to admit that the UK and EU have been on separate courses since at least the introduction of the Maastricht and Lisbon Treaties?

    We could possibly crawl back in temporarily, with our tail between our legs, but sooner or later, both the EU and the UK have to agree to disagree on what they want. The EU wants a single currency, a common travel agreement, the EU Parliament and Commission to have authority over National Parliaments. The ECJ to have supremacy etc etc. The EU PTB want the EU to become a single country.

    We don’t. Remainers don’t. Nearly all Remainers want the UK to be in the EU for what the UK can get out of it. They don’t particularly want all this ever-closer-union stuff!

  • Peter Martin 18th Mar '19 - 1:07pm

    @ Sarah Brown,

    What’s a ‘nuclear football’? I’ve heard of political footballs, nuclear bombs, nuclear options, and even nuclear families!

    Maybe that’s us in the UK? We’re having a family row over which team to support?

  • Daniel Walker 18th Mar '19 - 1:39pm

    @Peter Martin “What’s a ‘nuclear football’?” (also in the OED, and has existed as a phrase since at least 1965, apparently)

    We’re not your personal search engine, Peter….

  • Thank the Lord others have started to educate Peter. With a combined effort we may well get our resident Labour follower past the Gateskill era and up to dear Harold. I would like to teach him how to use a search engine but I fear that is much too modern.

  • John Marriott 18th Mar '19 - 3:30pm

    “Retract”? Now that’s a new verb. Is that the same as ‘revoke’, or is it another word for ‘postpone’ or ‘delay’, which it looks as if will now have to happen whatever Parliament decides this week?

    In any case there will surely now have to be at least a ‘technical’ extension to Article 50 even if May’s Deal does stagger over the finishing line. And what about a softer Brexit, such as Common Market 2.0? ONLY when ALL alternatives have been considered and none can achieve majority support in Parliament, and let’s not rule out completely another attempted Labour Motion of No Confidence, with all that could trigger, should we go down the road towards another referendum.

  • Peter Martin 18th Mar '19 - 3:37pm

    Actually, frankie, if you knew how to use a Search engine, you’d find you could type in “Gateskill” and it would ask “Do mean ‘Gaitskell’

    And you’d realise “yes I do” and you could copy and paste his full name of Hugh Todd Naylor Gaitskell CBE in the full knowledge you hadn’t made any mistakes!

  • Peter
    Google SPD Bad Godesberg 1959 while you are at it.

  • Peter Martin 18th Mar '19 - 6:34pm

    @ Ian Martin,

    Ah yes, the Social Democratic Party of Germany. I remember them well.

    How are they doing these days?

  • All our party can do is to try to get out a message giving the truth about the European Union. If most people in the U.K. felt enthusiastic about Europe we wouldn’t be in this mess. There does not seem to be anyone prepared to lead on telling the truth about Europe.

  • Arnold Kiel 19th Mar '19 - 3:53am

    Revocation is of course the most rational course of action, and I do not believe in an important public backlash.

    The immediate and substantial sterling appreciation and house-price recovery would provide a short-term relief to household budgets and home-equity. Next summer would be cheaper and more relaxing with the knowledge of hassle-free travel and a safer job at home. The not insignificant minority that would produce some orchestrated theatrical outcry will strongly overlap with the group that would be even more disappointed with the real effects of leaving they and their abusers continue to dismiss. So politicians really just have a choice between short-term- or long-term delusion of that group. If I were them, I would pick the short-term backlash for a change.

    The problem with the next referendum is its coincidence with the European Parliament election which cannot wait. It would be a lot more straightforward if they were fought in a settled, albeit controversial, remain scenario.

    Electing UK MEPs with the membership question still open is a risk I would take, but the EU would not be happy to have a bunch of UKIPpers from IUK for 5 years. Maybe it could be agreed that the UK MEPs withdraw in a leave-scenario, as the PR-system of the EU elections would in principle permit filling up those seats with the marginal EU-27 list candidates.

  • Peter Martin 19th Mar '19 - 8:38am

    @ Tom Harney,

    ” If most people in the U.K. felt enthusiastic about Europe we wouldn’t be in this mess.”

    Most people who’ve been there, do feel “enthisuastic about Europe”. The scenery of the Alps, for example, is spectacular. The problem most people have isn’t with a geographical region, but with the political entity known as the European Union.

    I’d feel much more enthusiastic about the EU if it didn’t have such a mind numbing effect on the political left. When Mrs Thatcher’s govt was attacking the working classes in Britain in the 80’s it was the left who organised the resistance. It all culminated in Poll Tax riots if you remember your recent history.

    But when the EU attacks, in similar or worse fashion, the European left goes walkabout. It doesn’t want to know and prefers political oblivion rather than do what anyone might expect it to. They should be at the forefront of the ‘gilets jaune’ movement and directing anger at where it should be directed rather than at immigrants and other minority groups. But they aren’t. They’ve left the struggle to the far right.

  • Peter Martin 19th Mar '19 - 9:13am

    @ Arnold Kiel,

    “The immediate and substantial sterling appreciation and house-price recovery would provide a short-term relief”

    It’s likely, but not certain, that the £ would rise if Art50 were revoked. It would depend on the extent of the public backlash. If there’s large scale civil disturbance then it would fall back down again. But we should ask ourselves if we want the pound to rise? The UK economy has been doing much better than expected since the ’16 referendum. The lower pound has encouraged tourism and boosted exports.

    House prices have passed their peak and won’t recover whatever happens. That’s a good thing for those hoping to buy. The fall is nothing to do with Brexit. The same thing is happening in other economies which have been run on similar neo-Keynesian lines (neo-Keynesian should read NOT Keynesian BTW) as the UK. ie using ultra low interest rates combined with continued deregualtion to create a credit bubble. This would be the ‘Anglo’ economies of Australia, New Zealand, USA, Canada. But we can probably add in China too.

    Bu maybe Brexit is causing house prices to fall in Sydney too? 🙂

  • @Arnold

    Forgive me if people dont have faith in your forecasts.
    After all the treasury claimed that within 2 years of a vote to leave, unemployment would rise by 520,00 in a shock scenario and as much as 820,000 in a severe shock.
    And what are we seeing in reality? UK jobless rate at a 44 year low of 3.9%

    Wages are beginning to rise and employers are having to do more to retain staff

    Maybe someone can give us the figures and tell us how much employment has risen by since a vote to leave, rather than the project fear figure of losses.

  • @matt “Forgive me if people dont have faith in your forecasts.”
    I however, have every reason to believe Mogg when he conceded that it could take circa 50 years for our standard of living to be better than it is now, if the UK were to leave the EU.

    You may wish to disagree, however, I see no queue of Brexiteer’s lining up to question or correct Mogg. Given Mogg has every reason to put a gloss on things, yet refuses to publish his and the ERG’s Brexit plan [Aside: You would have thought he had done one years’ back rather hastily drawing one up last autumn.] I think he is probably being optimistic…

  • @roland

    That is selective quoting. That is not what he said at all.
    he said
    “The overwhelming opportunity for Brexit is over the next 50 year”

    He did not say anything about it will take 50 years to have a better standard of living than we had now.

  • @matt – I wasn’t quoting, I was summarising what he said in the context of a series of questions where he was increasingly evasive and where he totally failed to challenge the viewpoint put by the interviewer namely that the UK would be worse off with Mogg’s preferred no-deal Brexit.

    Also, you fail to ask for whom exactly is the opportunity Mogg refers to? As Mogg didn’t enlarge on this, we can only assume, given his evasiveness that he wasn’t referring to the larger UK electorate.

  • @Roland

    You are summarising with a huge amount of spin, that’s for sure.

    The Interviewer was taking the view that the UK would be worse off if we leave.

    Mogg was making the point that Brexit could be a huge success for the UK over the next 50 years.

    Everybody admits that in ALL scenarios of Brexit the UK will continue to GROW in all scenerios
    If we remain the UK will grow by “x”
    If we leave with a deal, the uk will grow by “x%
    if we leave without a deal, the uk will grow by “x%”

    In NO forecasts was the UK economy going to shrink.

    These were forecasts over a 15 year period.

    Considering the treasuries forecasts and projects fears predictions in the past have been wildly exaggerated and proven to be tales of unicorns and fairies, is it any wonder that your tactics are falling on deaf ears.

  • @matt
    >You are summarising with a huge amount of spin, that’s for sure.
    No, just applying simple logic based on a life of international technology business development; Mogg was clearly out of his depth and floundering as he had neither answers or the gung-ho attitude of Farage.
    >The Interviewer was taking the view that the UK would be worse off if we leave.
    Mogg was totally unable to present any argument to contradict or cause a listener to question the interviewer’s line, so decided to become more and more evasive. “opportunity” is a politicians weasel word, you should bear in mind Moggs ‘business’, it isn’t about job creation it is gambling with markets, spotting ‘opportunities’ to make money regardless of the impact on people in those markets.

    >Everybody admits that in ALL scenarios of Brexit the UK will continue to GROW in all scenerios
    So why didn’t Mogg communicate that simple message and instead in a half-hearted and very evasive way that there were ‘opportunities’? As I said there is no queue of Brexiteers challenging Mogg – perhaps they are gullible and simply interpret ‘opportunities’ in their own way and hence not ask Mogg to qualify his usage of the word – and while you’re about it, how able getting him to publish the ERG Brexit plan, which almost certainly will backup the rationale for his family business relocating to Dublin…
    However, it is perfectly possible for the economy to grow and yet still experience austerity.

    >Considering the treasuries forecasts and projects fears predictions in the past have been wildly exaggerated and proven to be tales of unicorns and fairies, is it any wonder that your tactics are falling on deaf ears.
    So by implication all the Brexiteer forecasts and projections, including Moggs ‘opportunities’ can be dismissed as rose-tinted dreams of a past time that only existed in a Disney cartoon film.
    As for the deaf ears, it seems Brexiteers aren’t even listening to what their own leaders are saying.

    So Matt what ‘opportunities’ do you see post-Brexit that you will be exploiting, yes exploiting. I’m not interested in emotional heartwarming stuff, I’m interested in where are you going to put your money ie. risk your pension. Are you prepared to walk the talk and set up a business, or not stray from the comfort of your living room chair?

  • @Roland
    “So by implication all the Brexiteer forecasts and projections, including Moggs ‘opportunities’ can be dismissed as rose-tinted dreams of a past time that only existed in a Disney cartoon film.”

    As I have said on another thread . If people were going to be 100% honest with themselves, they would admit, with all the problems that they EU are faced with, there are just as many risks of staying in the project, as there are leaving.
    After weighing up all the pros and cons, I have come to the conclusion that the UK would be best served out where it can work on a global scale, rather than being part of a protectionist group were the loop is getting ever tighter

    “So Matt what ‘opportunities’ do you see post-Brexit that you will be exploiting, yes exploiting. I’m not interested in emotional heartwarming stuff, I’m interested in where are you going to put your money ie. risk your pension. Are you prepared to walk the talk and set up a business, or not stray from the comfort of your living room chair?”

    Well, I am not going to be putting my money anywhere Roland, I dont have any to put. I do not have a pension. And being a disabled person, I dont get to stray from the confines of my bed most of the time…Does that mean I am less able to form an opinion on what I think is best for this country.
    And please spare me the, it’s people at the bottom of the rung like me who will be hit the most by Brexit. We are not buying it, we have been hit by consecutive Governments for decades, long before Brexit came along and worse by the coalition Government which was on your watch.
    And no, my anger at the coalition has nothing to do with my vote to leave.
    I made what I believe was an informed choice long before the coalition years….

  • Arnold Kiel 20th Mar '19 - 2:55am

    Our leave-friends on this site argue their case by now based on two axioms:
    1. All (new) thinking after June 23, 2016 is prohibited.
    2. The dark art of economic analysis and forecasting must be abolished.
    They could not summarise the case for revocation any more compelling.

  • Peter Martin 20th Mar '19 - 1:38pm

    @ Arnold Kiel,

    It would be good if we had some rational thinking from you irrespective of when it was or will be!

    “The dark art of economic analysis and forecasting must be abolished”

    I’m not sure what you’re getting at with this comment but when the EU supporters have figured out just where they went wrong with the euro, or at least started to think about it, maybe we could have a sensible conversation about how best to run the UK economy too.

    Before anyone tells me that the UK doesn’t use the euro, I’ll just make two points. Firstly, if the Lib Dems had had their way we would be. We were told in the early 00s that our future prosperity depended on it. Secondly, the fallout from the euro folly doesn’t stop at EZ borders.

  • Peter Martin 20th Mar '19 - 2:56pm

    @ Arnold Kiel,

    I came across an interesting story just now about how the German Govt are trying to force a merger between Deutsche Bank and Commerzbank. We are told

    Deutsche Bank has gone from a high of 112.22 euros on May 11, 2007 to its current price of 7.82 euros (March 15, 2019). Similarly Commerzbank has fallen from its high of 291.16 euros on May 9, 2007 to 7.41 on March 19, 2019.

    The term ‘Zombie’ bank has been used to describe both. So the German Govt seems to prefer the idea of one big Zombie bank rather than two smaller ones.

    I have been warning for a time that it’s been the Italian banking sector which could fail spectacularly and take down the entire financial structure of the eurozone. Possibly taking the EU down with it. This seems a good reason to want to leave before we get handed a huge bail -out bill and/or get caught up in the problem ourselves.

    But maybe it’s more the German banks we need to worry about. What do you think?

  • Peter Martin 20th Mar '19 - 5:31pm

    @ David,

    “The mischief infecting the 2008 crisis originated in the American banking scene.”

    OK yes that’s true. However, it wasn’t that previously well behaved bankers had suddenly started to behave delinquently for no obvious reason. Bankers will always do what bankers always do and that is chase profits and the easy dollar, euro or pound. That’s the nature of the animal. The job of government is to regulate them and help keep them on the straight and narrow. The culture in western circles had previously been one of banking deregulation and casino capitalism. The market knows best approach. Except when it doesn’t and the banks have to be bailed out by the taxpayers.

    So there was a failure of Governments worldwide. The Americans were perhaps the worst but weren’t the only culprits. Nevertheless they’ve recovered much quicker than we’ve seen in the EU. So the potential failure of the EU financial system, again, is fundamentally down to the EU governments and also the rules applied on governments by the EU. They’ve suffered much worse from the 2008 crash, than have the Americans even though the problem, as we both agree, originated mainly in America. That’s largely a self inflicted wound on the EU’s part. If the Americans could recover then there’s no reason why the EU couldn’t do the same.

    I didn’t agree that Deutsche bankers are particularly wicked. They are probably more responsible in a conservative sort of way than their American counterparts. If one or two EU banks are in trouble then we can say it must be down to individual mismanagement. If they are all in trouble then there must be a systemic cause.

    The present structure of the US financial system is pretty good. Which is a good thing. The Americans are keeping the world economy moving along. We’d all be in deep sh*t if everyone had a Germanic mercantalistic approach. That’s largely down to the repair work undertaken on it during Obama’s watch. If something is in good shape to start with, it can probably cope, for at least a few years, with someone like Trump coming along and doing not such a good job.

  • Arnold Kiel 20th Mar '19 - 5:47pm

    I forgot axiom 3. (a Peter Martin exclusive): no dignified human life is possible in and close to the eurozone.

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