Immediately after the Brexit vote, all the analysis I saw argued that Article 50 would not be triggered for some time. They all made a simple mistake: they were thinking rationally about what would be best for the UK. Rick has an excellent analogy that elaborates on one that I and others have used, and it really would be best if you read his blog rather than for me just to repeat it. The conclusion, which this earlier analysis I mentioned had also come to, is that triggering Article 50 without any kind of idea about what any agreement would look like puts the UK in a very weak negotiating position.
This is why the EU were pressing for Article 50 to be triggered as soon as possible. Their real fear is that the prospect but not the actuality of the UK leaving would hang over them for years, and that was the UK’s strongest card. Before playing this card the UK could at least get a clear idea of what the EU might be prepared to offer, and possibly get some commitments that sketch the broad outlines of any deal. Once Article 50 is triggered, the UK will be far more desperate for a deal than the EU. It would only be a slight exaggeration to say it allows the EU to dictate terms. Triggering Article 50 was our best card, yet it is a card that Theresa May is determined to throw away.
Just to emphasise the point, this has absolutely nothing to do with whether you voted to Remain or Leave. Anyone who actually wants a good deal from the EU when we leave should realise that the UK’s negotiating position becomes instantly weaker once Article 50 is triggered. I do not know whether those who have successfully pushed for triggering Article 50 so soon simply live in a deluded state where they think that the UK will be in the stronger negotiating position, or whether they are desperately afraid that if it is not done soon people will go off the whole idea of leaving. But whichever it is, it is an act of folly, whether you want to leave or not. It substantially increases the likelihood of getting a bad deal.
As for Labour’s position, I’m afraid all I can say is you were warned. Jolyon Maugham describes Labour’s position as checkmating itself, but I strongly suspect this is a match the Labour leadership do not want to win. The fact that others in the PLP are content to go along with this does not make it any better. As I wrote at the time, all this was one very good reason for voting for Smith rather than Corbyn.
And if Labour wants to position itself as being the party that can make a success of Brexit, that road spells doom. If MPs think they can avoid losing votes to UKIP or the Conservatives in their traditional heartlands by adopting this line (or trying to be all things to everyone and therefore in reality champion of nothing), they will lose many more votes in their new heartlands than they will save in the old. Many voters feel much more attached to Europe than they do to Labour. This is something I have argued for some time, and this poll suggests I am right. If Labour backs Brexit they will get less votes than the Liberal Democrats. As I also wrote during the Labour leadership election, Brexit changes everything.
But I do not want to get distracted by that. The key point is that triggering Article 50 so soon does not make sense even if you voted Leave.
So if MPs, pro or anti leaving, had any sense at all, and any independence at all, they would vote against. Yes the right wing press will scream and brand you an ‘enemy of the people’, but if have the interests of the British people as your priority rather than your short term popularity that is what you will do. You could even get voters on your side if you explain why you are doing it. This is one of those moments, like the Iraq war vote, where it is utterly obvious what should be done. We are not yet a country that is run by the Mail and the Sun, but triggering Article 50 will make it look suspiciously like we are.