Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Politics
  2. UK Politics
10 October 2017

It’s ever clearer that the UK triggered Article 50 too early

Theresa May's decision to begin withdrawal before cabinet disagreements were resolved gave the EU the advantage. 

By George Eaton

On the day Theresa May triggered Article 50, having comfortably won a parliamentary vote on the subject, Remainers howled with despair. But even from a pro-Brexit perspective, some warned, the Prime Minister was acting precipitously.

Rather than initiating EU withdrawal on 29 March 2017, they argued, May should wait until there was cabinet agreement on the UK’s negotiating stance, and until after the French and German elections. By starting the two-year countdown before these matters had been resolved, the government was squandering valuable time.

More than six months after Article 50 was invoked, such warnings have been vindicated. The UK has yet to begin trade talks with the EU as issues including citizens’ rights, Britain’s divorce payment and the Irish border remain unresolved. Owing to cabinet divisions over the length and nature of the Brexit transition period, ministers have spent more time negotiating with each other than member states.

When the EU drew up the divorce proceedings it did so with the intention of maximising control. The withdrawal deal that Britain reaches must be approved by at least 72 per cent of member states, representing 65 per cent of the EU’s population. The two-year deadline for leaving can only be extended by unanimous agreement.

May’s continued assertion that “no deal is better than a bad deal” is defended by allies as a standard negotiating tactic. But as Stephen noted earlier, the government is undertaking few of the measures required to make this threat credible (such as building new customs facilities in Dover and hiring thousands of extra government officials).

Select and enter your email address Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.

The haste with which Article 50 was triggered reflected the political pressure on May (and her desire to sweep up Ukip voters). In the view of some Conservative cabinet ministers and MPs, 29 March was rather late in the day. 

Ever since their narrow referendum victory, Leavers have feared that Brexit could be thwarted. The longer the UK waited before invoking Article 50, the greater the risk that public opinion could turn against them. Theresa May’s refusal to deny receiving legal advice that the measure is revocable supports such fears.

But though the early triggering of Article 50 has reduced the risk of Brexit being blocked, it has also made it even harder for the UK to secure an adequate deal.