The Brexit Referendum May Have Simply Been Political Theater

Andrew Moravcsik, a political science professor at Princeton, predicted back in April that the United Kingdom wouldn’t leave the European Union even if the “Leave” referendum were to pass. Now that it has passed, it’s important to remember that it wasn’t legally binding. The parliaments in Scotland and Northern Ireland may be able to veto it. In addition, neither Prime Minister David Cameron nor the Brexit-supporting MP, Boris Johnson, who wants Cameron’s job are in any rush to begin the formal process of leaving:

The Brexit debate has become a global spectator sport, which suggests that something very important must be at stake. Yet, unlike issues such as migration, the euro crisis and Ukraine, it lacks real significance: under no circumstances will Britain leave Europe, regardless of the result of the referendum on June 23. It is instead a long kabuki drama in which politicians, not least Eurosceptics, advocate policies they would never actually implement…

Instead, the government would probably do just what EU members — Denmark, France, Ireland and the Netherlands — have always done after such votes. It would negotiate a new agreement, nearly identical to the old one, disguise it in opaque language and ratify it. The public, essentially ignorant about Europe, always goes along.

Now that Brexit appears within [the Euroskeptics’] grasp, they are backing away from it. What they really seek is domestic political power. If Britain votes to leave, the government will fall or, at the very least, the cabinet will be reshuffled. For Eurosceptic backbenchers, this is a once­-in­-a-­lifetime opportunity. Yet they lack parliamentary and popular majorities to govern alone. They would have to strike a deal, which means moderating anti-European demands — all amid post­-referendum economic chaos. Renegotiation inside the EU would be almost inevitable.

Excessively cynical? Hardly. Few Eurosceptics are more prominent (or ambitious) than Boris Johnson, and he has signalled his willingness to compromise. The mayor [now former mayor] of London’s soundbites remain flamboyant: “The door of the jail [is] open, and people can see the sunlit land beyond.” But read the fine print.

When the referendum was announced, Mr. Johnson said that voting to leave need not necessarily mean leaving. Britain might renegotiate a better deal inside the EU, followed by a second referendum. So voters need not worry: “If you vote to leave, all your options are good.”