Last night, a friend of mine asked if I thought there was any chance that Parliament might ignore the result of the Brexit referendum. It’s an interesting question.
From a constitutional standpoint, the referendum is simply advisory, and the Government will have to implement the decision. Parliament’s role in the matter is unclear. The Government is not obliged to consult MPs or peers before starting the withdrawal process under Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon, but there will almost certainly be debates in both Houses when Parliament reconvenes.
In theory, either House could call on the Government to refrain from activating Article 50. However, it’s not clear what this would achieve. A parliamentary motion would not be legally binding. It might not even be politically binding. For example, if peers were to vote against Brexit, the Government would almost certainly ignore it. If MPs were to do it, that would be harder to ignore, but it would also put the Government in an incredibly awkward position. For better or worse, a majority of voters chose to leave the European Union, and there will naturally be a strong impetus to accept their decision.
That being said, if the economic situation continues to deteriorate, MPs might be able to persuade the Government to put the brakes on Brexit. Leave’s narrow margin of victory and reports that the British people are having second thoughts could potentially provide the Government with a suitable justification. However, any attempt to walk back from Brexit would create another set of problems. It’s not clear how the rest of the EU would react (so far, its leaders have always said that a vote to leave is irreversible), and ignoring the result of a referendum would only deepen popular mistrust of politicians.