Boris Johnson EU referendum report advised against invoking Article 50

by Dave Hill

Although a Remainer I’ve tried to keep an open mind about Brexit: uncertainty was inevitable and it is too soon to assume that catastrophe is guaranteed; London’s economy is resilient and its financial services sector in particular is good at adapting to change. But as the government’s negotiations with the European Union appear increasingly ineffectual and mired, it is hard to fight off feelings of foreboding. And when Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson declares that it is time to “let the British lion roar” it serves as a reminder of the somewhat circumspect view of leaving the European Union he endorsed when he was London Mayor.

In August 2014, Johnson launched a report by his economics adviser Gerard Lyons, commending it as a guide through the coming “thicket” of debate about the UK’s and London’s relationship with the EU. The context was David Cameron’s January 2013 promise tho hold a referendum if he won the forthcoming general election (which, of course, he did). Subtitled “a win-win situation”, The Europe Report reached many interesting conclusions, primarily that “the best economic outlook for the UK over the next twenty years is if it remains in a reformed EU”. But now that the UK government, along with its Labour opposition, appear determined to leave, another of Lyons’s judgements has become more striking.

“Not invoking Article 50 may make more sense”, states a heading on page 97, beneath which Lyons suggests that holding back from formally commencing separation would assist the UK in being “proactive in seeking an amicable separation”. And before that (page 92) Lyons reasons that a narrow referendum outcome could of itself be a reason for not invoking Article 50. “The scale of the margin of a [No/Leave] victory would have a clear bearing on subsequent events,” he wrote. “If this was of the two to one scale of the 1975 Referendum then it would suggest a clear mandate to leave, and there would need to be a full focus on the need to do so”. However: “In contrast, a small margin of victory would likely complicate subsequent developments”, perhaps opening the option for another referendum or for future re-entry to the EU.

Lyons thought that if the EU did not reform in the ways he advised, the UK would be better off out of it. To that extent, Johnson’s EU stance since returning to parliament has been consistent with the report that he commissioned and warmly welcomed when Mayor. But what about those caveats about a narrow No vote, defined as a margin far finer than the UK’s 67%-33% Yes to joining the then European Economic Community in 1975? What about Lyons’s case that not triggering Article 50 any sooner than needed “may make more sense” because, to quote Lyons further, “like a nuclear weapon, the threat of its use may be a more powerful weapon than its actual use – as invoking it could start an irreversible process and it cedes power to EU institutions to decide the terms of our exit”.

Do you remember “good old Boris”, the poster boy of the Leave campaign, calling for caution over invoking Article 50, especially given the narrow, 52%-48%, referendum outcome? Do you recall him warning that triggering it would hand the power to dictate the terms of the UK’s exit to the EU?

Read The Europe Report: A Win-Win Situation here.

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