Vote Leave, get Remain?

A vote to leave the EU doesn’t necessarily mean that’s what we’ll get, says Merryn Somerset Webb.


Even if you vote to leave, you might not get what you want.

Everyone keeps asking for a "vision". Why can't the Out camp (or for that matter the In camp) give us a clear vision of what the UK might look like post Brexit? How can they vote if they can't know what they are voting for?

This sounds like a perfectly good question, but it isn't. This isn't like a general election. In those you have parties who (in theory at least) agree on what kind of future they want and who can therefore offer a vision of how their policies will lead to that future.

In a referendum such as this one and the Scottish referendum you aren't being offered a choice of parties (and hence a vision), you are being offered a process. What the UK actually looks like post Brexit depends on how that process is used on the government in power after Brexit (who presumably will offer a vision).

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However there is, I think, at least one answer for what the UK looks like after a win for Brexit and it is this: remarkably similar to what it looks like right now. Voting to stay in the EU is not to vote for the status quo. There is no status quo in the EU: it is constantly changing moving towards full economic union, political union and, of course, federalism. It's heading for an EU army, tax harmonisation and full control over foreign affairs.

Vote to stay in and you don't get what you have now: you get more Europe and we know what the EU wants that to mean. Imagine, says Dan Hannan in his book Why Vote Leave?, that you are on a bus, a bus whose destination, a United States of Europe, is very clearly marked on the front. The driver keeps calling out the stops ahead: common European taxation, a unified welfare system, an EU army.

Now here is the question: if you want to remain where you are, what do you do? Should you literally remain motionless sitting rigid in your seat as the bus purrs along its route, or should you politely disembark and wave it on its way? So the first thing that happens on leaving is not that there is change but that there is a general agreement in the UK that the change should end. And then things will happen very slowly indeed.

To leave, the UK government must invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, after which the EU's rules apply to the UK for another two years. The referendum doesn't mean the UK has to do this immediately (this is for Parliament to figure out). It could do a great deal of negotiation pre Article 50 and then bring it in when things are mostly sorted (which really won't be that hard for all the posturing, no one wants a trade war) to avoid any time constraints (you only get two years to make a deal post Article 50 beyond that, EU law stops applying automatically).

Around then, one Act of Parliament would also make all EU law UK law and we would work from there (presumably keeping most regulations and so giving retainers the status quo they say they want).

But here's something else to think about: a referendum doesn't actually mean our government has to invoke Article 50 at all. My guess as to what will actually happen if Vote Leave win is that everything will be handed over to the civil servants (to allow out politicians the time to indulge in full scale internal bickering about whose fault it all is); there will be an awful lot of pre Article 50 negotiation; a joyous announcement that the EU has finally seriously reformed; and another referendum in two-three years. Vote out to stay in perhaps?

Merryn Somerset Webb

Merryn Somerset Webb started her career in Tokyo at public broadcaster NHK before becoming a Japanese equity broker at what was then Warburgs. She went on to work at SBC and UBS without moving from her desk in Kamiyacho (it was the age of mergers).

After five years in Japan she returned to work in the UK at Paribas. This soon became BNP Paribas. Again, no desk move was required. On leaving the City, Merryn helped The Week magazine with its City pages before becoming the launch editor of MoneyWeek in 2000 and taking on columns first in the Sunday Times and then in 2009 in the Financial Times

Twenty years on, MoneyWeek is the best-selling financial magazine in the UK. Merryn was its Editor in Chief until 2022. She is now a senior columnist at Bloomberg and host of the Merryn Talks Money podcast -  but still writes for Moneyweek monthly. 

Merryn is also is a non executive director of two investment trusts – BlackRock Throgmorton, and the Murray Income Investment Trust.