The EU Referendum and Article 50

The “No” vote in the UK’s recent referendum on membership of the European Union has, in itself, plunged the UK into political, economic and social turmoil – even though the referendum was purely advisory (not legally binding on the government), and even though no political decision on a British exit has been taken, much less an exit effected in practice.

A lot has been written in analysis of the constitutional problems raised by the vote and its political fall-out. The clearest example to date is probably the piece by David Pannick QC in the Times:

Even that piece, though, is quite detailed and involved. I had to read it several times before I could state it simply enough to believe that I had understood its logic myself – so I thought the resulting summary might be helpful to others. Here it is:

1. Invoking Art.50 commits the UK, irreversibly, to a process which requires the amendment of existing UK statutes.

2. Existing UK statutes can only be amended by Act of Parliament*.

3. Therefore, Art.50 cannot lawfully be invoked without an Act of Parliament (and consequently a parliamentary vote).

Conclusion: it would be unlawful for the Prime Minister to invoke Art.50 without putting that decision to the vote in parliament.


* And crucially, the PM may not revoke (“frustrate”)  a prior parliamentary decision by invoking the “royal prerogative”.