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Parliament will trigger Article 50 - but it may legally still be possible to cancel Brexit

Legal experts believe they have found an escape hatch if Britain's negotiations turn out to be a damp squib. 

MPs have voted to trigger Article 50. The Lords now debating the Article 50 bill are unlikely to block Brexit. 

But campaigners believe there will still legally be an opportunity to cancel what they see as a slow motion constitutional and economic disaster. 

The People’s Challenge, one of the parties that, along with Gina Miller, forced the government to consult Parliament, has consulted lawyers about the next stage of the process.

According to the legal opinion written by three senior EU law specialists, there is an escape hatch at the end of the Brexit negotiations.

Sir David Edward, a former European Court of Justice judge, Sir Francis Jacobs, the ECJ’s former Advocate General, and the EU lawyer Sir Jeremy Lever believe that the EU can’t force Britain to leave. 

This means that MPs two years hence don’t have to choose between a terrible deal or no deal at all – they can also simply revoke Article 50 and go back to being full members of the EU.

Grahame Pigney, the founder of The People’s Challenge, told me: “We want to dispel the idea that there is a Hobson’s Choice [on taking the Brexit deal or leaving it]. 

“It is entirely reasonable and practicable to say ‘We will reserve that decision until the end of the process’.”

The legal opinion will raise hackles on Brexiteers who believe Remain campaigners aim to halt Brexit in the courts. But what does it actually argue?

What the legal opinion says

The legal opinion considers two main questions:

a) What are the constitutional requirements, as set out by Article 50, for the UK to withdraw from the EU?

b) If these constitutional requirements are not met, could the UK withdraw the Article 50 notice, or let it lapse? 

The lawyers argue that MPs must do more than vote on a Brexit deal – they must set out the terms in an act of Parliament. 

There is a well-established constitutional practice of Parliament legislating to require new international agreements, particularly those concerned with the European Union, to be approved by an Act of Parliament before they can take effect.

Then, considering the constitutional question, they say “there are very strong arguments” that triggering Article 50 means a country can leave the EU “subject to the fulfilment of such constitutional requirements”. 

Here’s the most crucial part of the opinion:

Therefore, if Parliament were to refuse to give legal effect to the terms of a withdrawal agreement negotiated with the European Union, or were to refuse to authorise withdrawal in the absence of any agreement, the notification given by the United Kingdom of its intention to leave the European Union could be treated as having lapsed (since the constitutional requirements required to give effect to that intention had not been met), or could be unilaterally withdrawn.

What this means

Pigney says his campaign group commissioned this legal opinion to give parliamentarians guidance, rather than to mount another challenge in the courts – although he doesn’t rule out one later on in the game. 

As he put it to me: “Whether there is a court case depends on the climate in the UK when we know what a deal is and whether the government is going to try to push something past that is plainly not in the interests of the people.

“Yes, a decision was made, but people can change their minds.”

Although the Prime Minister has confirmed Brexit will mean leaving the single market, and one recent Daily Mirror poll found hints of “Bregret”, most polling so far has suggested those who voted Leave are still happy with the way they voted. 

But as Pigney points out, the Brexit negotiation process is likely to take two years, if not more. And by that point, the mood of the country may be very different. 


Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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Cambridge Analytica and the digital war in Africa

Across the continent, UK expertise is being deployed online to sway elections and target dissidents.

Cambridge Analytica, the British political consultancy caught up in a huge scandal over its use of Facebook data, has boasted that they ran the successful campaigns of President Uhuru Kenyatta in the 2013 and 2017 Kenyan elections. In a secretly filmed video, Mark Turnbull, a managing director for Cambridge Analytica and sister company SCL Elections, told a Channel 4 News’ undercover investigative reporting team that his firm secretly stage-managed Kenyatta’s hotly contested campaigns.

“We have rebranded the entire party twice, written the manifesto, done research, analysis, messaging. I think we wrote all the speeches and we staged the whole thing – so just about every element of this candidate,” Turnbull said of his firm’s work for Kenyatta’s party.

Cambridge Analytica boasts of manipulating voters’ deepest fears and worries. Last year’s Kenyan election was dogged by vicious online propaganda targeting opposition leader Raila Odinga, with images and films playing on people’s concerns about everything from terrorism to spiralling disease. No-one knows who produced the material. Cambridge Analytica denies involvement with these toxic videos – a claim that is hard to square with the company’s boast that they “staged the whole thing.” 

In any event, Kenyatta came to power in 2013 and won a second and final term last August, defeating Odinga by 1.4 million votes.

The work of this British company is only the tip of the iceberg. Another company, the public relations firm, Bell Pottinger, has apologised for stirring up racial hostility in South Africa on behalf of former President Jacob Zuma’s alleged financiers – the Gupta family. Bell Pottinger has since gone out of business.

Some electoral manipulation has been home grown. During the 2016 South African municipal elections the African National Congress established its own media manipulations operation.

Called the “war room” it was the ANC’s own “black ops” centre. The operation ranged from producing fake posters, apparently on behalf of opposition parties, to establishing 200 fake social media “influencers”. The team launched a news site, The New South African, which claimed to be a “platform for new voices offering a different perspective of South Africa”. The propaganda branded opposition parties as vehicles for the rich and not caring for the poor.

While the ANC denied any involvement, the matter became public when the public relations consultant hired by the party went to court for the non-payment of her bill. Among the court papers was an agreement between the claimant and the ANC general manager, Ignatius Jacobs. According to the email, the war room “will require input from the GM [ANC general manager Jacobs] and Cde Nkadimeng [an ANC linked businessman] on a daily basis. The ANC must appoint a political champion who has access to approval, as this is one of the key objectives of the war room.”

Such home-grown digital dirty wars appear to be the exception, rather than the rule, in the rest of Africa. Most activities are run by foreign firms.

Ethiopia, which is now in a political ferment, has turned to an Israeli software company to attack opponents of the government. A Canadian research group, Citizens Lab, reported that Ethiopian dissidents in the US, UK, and other countries were targeted with emails containing sophisticated commercial spyware posing as Adobe Flash updates and PDF plugins.

Citizens Lab says it identified the spyware as a product known as “PC Surveillance System (PSS)”. This is a described as a “commercial spyware product offered by Cyberbit —  an Israel-based cyber security company— and marketed to intelligence and law enforcement agencies.”

This is not the first time Ethiopia has been accused of turning to foreign companies for its cyber-operations. According to Human Rights Watch, this is at least the third spyware vendor that Ethiopia has used to target dissidents, journalists and activists since 2013.

Much of the early surveillance work was reportedly carried out by the Chinese telecom giant, ZTE. More recently it has turned for more advanced surveillance technology from British, German and Italian companies. “Ethiopia appears to have acquired and used United Kingdom and Germany-based Gamma International’s FinFisher and Italy-based Hacking Team’s Remote Control System,” wrote Human Rights Watch in 2014.

Britain’s international development ministry – DFID – boasts that it not only supports good governance but provides funding to back it up. In 2017 the good governance programme had £20 million at its disposal, with an aim is to “help countries as they carry out political and economic reforms.” Perhaps the government should direct some of this funding to investigate just what British companies are up to in Africa, and the wider developing world.

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. He is the author of Understanding Eritrea and, with Paul Holden, the author of Who Rules South Africa?