Why did the United Kingdom invoke Article 50 before it had reached a negotiation position? Two years is a short time to negotiate something as complex as a withdrawal from the European Union, yet the UK Government did not agree with itself on a negotiation position until 16 months after it triggered Article 50. A brief timeline of Brexit:

I don't understand the timing of invoking Article 50. Why didn't the UK wait until it knew what it wanted?

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    I think the question should be clarified - what entity in particular is referred to as "the UK"? I've been hammered by taking that to mean the United Kingdom, where others take it to refer to various executive and government bodies.
    – fabspro
    Commented Dec 16, 2018 at 14:02
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    Comments deleted. Please do not try to answer the question with comments. If you would like to answer the question, post a proper answer which adheres to our quality standards.
    – Philipp
    Commented Dec 16, 2018 at 21:15
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    @fabspro: It is quite clear that UK does stand for the United Kingdom, but context has to show whether that is used to refer to the government, the organisational entity, the population or the country in a purely geographical sense, i.e. the area inside the boundaries. In this case, since it was the government that invoked Article 50, UK clearly refers to the government of the UK as formed by the Conservative party and led by Theresa May.
    – PJTraill
    Commented Dec 16, 2018 at 23:40
  • More comments deleted. Please keep the comments focused on improving the question. Do not use comments to ask secondary questions or to discuss the subject matter of the question.
    – Philipp
    Commented Dec 20, 2018 at 14:34

8 Answers 8


You've missed one important occurrence in the sequence of events, which is something that none of the other answers have addressed:

Calling a general election exactly 3 weeks after invoking Article 50 was an attempt to gain a greater majority in parliament, as at that moment the Conservative party were doing incredibly well in the polls, at one point holding a 21-point lead against the main opposition Labour.

Invoking Article 50 at this point would allow the conservatives to outline their Brexit position during the election campaign, effectively allowing the people to vote between the parties for their version of Brexit. Each party would be campaigning for what their Brexit negotiation position would be, so it would be a de facto second referendum.

Triggering Article 50 before calling the election meant that rather than allowing their opposition to campaign on a "we won't invoke Article 50" or "we will hold a referendum on what us leaving should entail", they had already triggered a countdown that would mean their opponents would have to either promise to revoke Article 50, or come up with their own Brexit plan in 2 months to convince voters, followed by only 21 months to negotiate it.

Had the conservatives gained votes based on the poll numbers before the election was called, there would have been a significant conservative majority and May wouldn't have even needed all of her own party to agree to what the deal should be. The concerns of the Eurosceptic hard-brexiteers (that are causing so many problems now) could have probably been ignored.

Of course, this didn't happen, and the conservatives lost their majority.

To summarize: before coming to a firm decision on the conservative Brexit position, Theresa May called a general election in an attempt to gain a greater majority in parliament (which the polls all but guaranteed she would get) so that she wouldn't have to compromise so much with the most Eurosceptic in her party. Triggering Article 50 before calling the election was an attempt to force the opposition parties to turn the election into a vote on which version of Brexit voters wanted.

Note: this was the intention, but it didn't turn out as the conservatives wanted as Labour refused to clarify their Brexit position other than that they would "deliver Brexit". They instead made the election about the conservative's domestic record, which was much weaker, which led to the conservative majority collapsing.

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    This is brilliantly plausible, and somehow I completely forgot about the election, and in particular about the short time between calling Article 50 and the General Election being called. With a 150-seat Conservative majority, (which was considered entirely feasible with the opinion polling at the time) the Withdrawal Agreement would pass even if 100 conservatives voted against.
    – gerrit
    Commented Dec 17, 2018 at 14:17
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    Note that the conservatives actually did gain votes, but they nevertheless lost seats. Such is the craziness of our first past the post election system. Commented Dec 17, 2018 at 16:25
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    This figure is very illustrative to illustrate the polling situation at the time that Mrs. May the Prime Minister called the general election.
    – gerrit
    Commented Dec 17, 2018 at 17:27
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    @DaveInCaz en.wikipedia.org/wiki/…
    – gerrit
    Commented Mar 14, 2019 at 19:00
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    By not triggering A50 prior to the GE, there would have been a weakness to accusations that the election was a way of avoiding the issue. Invoking it took the sting out of UKIP, the main threat to the Conservative base.
    – James
    Commented Mar 28, 2019 at 13:40

The problem with arriving at a negotiating position was that the Conservative Party has never had a single view of what was wrong with the UK's position within the EU. There are factions ranging from "It's just fine as it is" to "Hard Brexit immediately."

For many of the Conservatives in favour of exit, their position was about the leaving, not the end result, for which they didn't have a plan. They weren't expecting to win the referendum, and weren't prepared for it. Some of them may not have really wanted to win, since campaigning is much easier than implementation.

This meant that arriving at a negotiating position involved a large number of compromises, taking time and producing a very vague document. There was a lot of pressure to get the process started from the "Leave now!" wing of the party, which appears to have been responsible for the timing of the triggering of Article 50, although we won't know for sure until May publishes her memoirs.

The public assumption was that the delay had allowed getting a negotiating position ready, but that was apparently false, given how much longer it took before a position was settled. Worse, the position was not backed by large sections of the party, producing the current factionalism, and lack of ability to get the current deal through Parliament. Calling of a General Election and failing to get a large Conservative majority must have mucked things up too.

The "Hard Brexit Now!" group are the only people who have a robust plan, as of December 2018, which is to prevent anything else happening until the UK leaves (on WTO terms) by default. It is actually within their power to do this, in the current Parliamentary situation. The Prime Minister can't get her plan through without co-operation from the Labour Party, which seems highly unlikely at present.

The group in favour of a second referrendum have a plan, but they don't have the ability to make it happen. The Prime Minister is in the same position, with a plan, but no ability to execute it.

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    @PaulJohnson: If would be robust if they had a practical way of making it happen. Explained a bit more. Commented Dec 16, 2018 at 12:50
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    I think the 2nd-referendumites have a plan. Step 1 is voting down May's plan. Step 2 is getting Parliament to vote for a 2nd referendum with Remain on the ballot, Step 3 is getting the EU to give us an extension, and Step 4 is winning it. At present step 1 is blocked by May, but that can't last. Commented Dec 16, 2018 at 13:49
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    However, Step 2 is by no means guaranteed to work, and will be portrayed by many people as undemocratic if it does. Commented Dec 16, 2018 at 13:55
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    @ChrisMelville: I have changed the language, but you will have to forgive me doubting that any significant percentage of the "leave" voters in the referendum understood what WTO terms mean. Commented Dec 16, 2018 at 19:29
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    @Gnudiff Nothing except the cost and weighing whether it's reasonable to have another one, e.g. based on time passed / changed situation. And that's fine. There was already a first referendum years back, so we already had two. And it would be a more concrete referendum with concrete options. But that's also besides the point, it is a plan that can be implemented, what the outcome might be is likely beyond the scope of the question. (which it kinda is anyway, as that plan wouldn't have been relevant before the last referendum anyway^^) Commented Dec 17, 2018 at 9:46

Negotiating for Brexit was the job of the executive wing of the UK government, which means the Cabinet, led by the Prime Minister.

In February 2017, shortly before triggering Article 50, the government published the UK negotiating policy for Brexit, setting out what it wanted. However during negotiations it became clear that this position was unrealistic, and hence the Cabinet had to agree a revised position in the Chequers Plan.

However the government still got very little of what it wanted, even from the Chequers Plan. The argument within the UK now is about whether what it got is better than what it has now, or what it would have if it left without any agreement.

Theresa May knows that she needs something more to get her deal through Parliament, but there is no consensus in the Government on what one or two things it should push for, and what it might be prepared to give up in return. This leads to the vagueness that the EU is complaining about.

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    This is all true, but it doesn't answer the question of why they didn't establish exactly what they wanted, and make sure enough people in their own party agreed, before triggering Article 50. (I'm not convinced there is any sensible answer to that question though...) Commented Dec 16, 2018 at 11:57
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    @user568458 The document I referenced was published in February 2017, before Article 50 was triggered. The Chequers plan was a response when it became evident that the original position was hopelessly unrealistic. I'll amend my answer to make this clearer. Commented Dec 16, 2018 at 12:06
  • @user568458 I think this is the closest thing to a correct answer in that the linked document outlined the negotiating position before Article 50 was triggered. But it's probably worth reading politics.stackexchange.com/questions/18506/… which is a very similar question and covers some of the problems with the published stance.
    – Jontia
    Commented Dec 17, 2018 at 9:16

Article 50 was triggered in the absence of a consensus within the party because the U.K. needed "to allow withdrawal negotiations to begin".

Wikipedia says this:

On 29 March 2017 the United Kingdom (UK) invoked Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union (TEU) which began the member state's withdrawal, commonly known as Brexit, from the European Union (EU). In compliance with the TEU, the UK gave formal notice to the European Council of its intention to withdraw from the EU to allow withdrawal negotiations to begin.

That is at this link. Starting the clock strengthens the negotiating position of the E.U. and so the E.U. had the incentive to require that the clock to be started before participating in real negotiation. The U.K. understood this.

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    This is the real answer: in short, they had to trigger, because negotiations (even finding out what is theoretically possible) would not start until they did
    – David
    Commented Dec 17, 2018 at 9:19
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    Information about the likely negotiating position of the EU was available before triggering Article 50, not least from statements by EU leaders. Diplomats in the UK Foreign Office will no doubt have been able to provide more detailed information. However I suspect that Brexiteers in the Cabinet didn't want to hear it because it directly contradicted statements they had made to swing the referendum their way. Commented Dec 17, 2018 at 10:51

The other answers rightfully analyse the political aspect of the question, but let's not forget that more fundamentally it would have been a denial of democracy to postpone the process indefinitely without a really good reason: the role of the government is to implement the will of the people, and the people happened to choose to leave the EU.

It's also worth remembering that at the beginning of the process, the UK government clearly overestimated their hand in the negotiation. They assumed that the EU would be accommodating for the sake of preserving its economy, and this was a massive miscalculation: the EU cannot legally offer an advantageous deal to a non-member state without offering the same to any other country. There was also a belief that the EU countries would not stand as a unified front, illustrated by some initial attempts by the UK to discuss with individual members instead of the mandated EU negotiation team. The UK government was also overconfident with the Irish border, an issue initially dismissed as easily solvable with technology.

Overall, the UK government appeared to be very optimistic about these negotiations, so they didn't see any reason to wait.

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    The referendum was advisory. It would not of been a denial of democracy to postpone it. Commented Dec 18, 2018 at 8:10
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    @user3161729 Even if the referendum was non-binding, Cameron had promised to implement the result. If he chose to blatantly ignore the result after campaigning for remain, it would have been seen as a serious disregard for the democratic process, to say the least.
    – Erwan
    Commented Dec 18, 2018 at 12:26
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    @user3161729 True, but with this kind of reasoning Cameron or May could have decided to ignore the result and keep the UK in the EU.
    – Erwan
    Commented Dec 18, 2018 at 18:12
  • Ignoring the result altogether would have split the Conservative party. Merely postponing triggering article 50 wouldn't.
    – JJJ
    Commented Feb 3, 2019 at 5:14
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    Cameron had promised to implement the result, but then he fled when he got the result he didn't want.
    – JGNI
    Commented Mar 15, 2019 at 12:31

There was no plan to begin with.

When David Cameron initiated the Brexit referendum, it was done mostly/solely for domestic reasons, i.e. to calm the Anti-EU wing of his party.

After the Brexit referendum yielded the Leave result, Cameron resigned and Theresa May took over. Theresa May is well remembered for her "Brexit means Brexit" statement she made shortly after assuming the position of Prime Minister.

"Brexit means Brexit", in fact, tells you all there is to know about any plans or positions. Imagine your ideal Brexit, voila.

That's the reason why the Brexit negotiations are seen as confuse and chaotic from a EU perspective, as the British government, and the Tory party in particular, needed to arrive at a common view on Brexit. Something, that has not fully happened ever since.

  • Yes, but, they could have waited with triggering Article 50 longer than they did have a plan. They eventually did have a plan (Chequers), but that well over a year after they triggered article 50. It seems out of order.
    – gerrit
    Commented Dec 17, 2018 at 12:56
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    I agree. The prudent approach would be to first get your own position ready, and then enter negotiations. One could also argue for a second referendum, in which to present three choices: hard Brexit (no plan), current-plan Brexit and no Brexit; since the electorate was completely in the dark in June 2016, which Brexit they would get.
    – Dohn Joe
    Commented Dec 17, 2018 at 13:02

Any answer to this is going to be mostly guesswork, I think, even if people offer very insightful analyses; I suspect that nobody really knows, except possibly the PM. It seems clear that there was a lot of myopic ideology involved in both pushing for the referendum, the subsequent leave campaigns and the unrealistic expectations to UK's negotiating position. One symptom of this, IMO, is the shrill statements about "The Will Of The People" - when the reality is that the result was what most would consider a very close call: 51.9 for leaving vs 48.1 for remaining. Hardly a decisive result.

So, to try to answer your question: I think the main reason was that the Conservative Party is deeply split over this and other issues, and the PM, facing an all-out civil war in her own party at a very critical moment for the UK, allowed the brexiteers to scare her into triggering article 50. I should qualify this a bit: I don't think Mrs May is scared of losing her position, but rather of seeing her party break apart and losing the government to Labour.

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    What makes the "Will of the people" argument particularly sour is that it has become evident that the Leave campaign used blatant lies and misinformation. This alone, should warrant a second referendum. Selling the result of a referendum, that was heavily influenced by propaganda and lies, as "Will of the people, that needs to be respected" hurts.
    – Dohn Joe
    Commented Dec 17, 2018 at 12:05
  • @John-Doe You imply that the remain campaign didn't? "Project Fear (mark 1) made many predictions about immediate post-poll events that were rapidly PROVED false by events. A second referendum is a lousy idea but may actually be better than any other alternatives given the mess our government has created. Indeed, I have to wonder whether the entire negotiation process was not a conspiracy, or at best something like "Stockholm Syndrome" amongst the UK negotiators (who wanted to remain).
    – nigel222
    Commented Dec 18, 2018 at 14:14

As with most things political it's about narrative. If you swallow the narrative that the UK elite genuinely wanted the UK to leave a functioning EU then it all seems a little odd. But what if the intention was to break the EU altogether? What if the intention was to collapse the EU project by starting a domino effect. Then events seem to make more sense? The UK is attempting to cause maximum disruption.. stir up discontent in other countries.. and cripple the EU. What if the UK elite had reason to believe that was all possible in a couple of short years? It turns out... It's not possible.. and now the UK risks loosing it's seat at a still functioning EU table.. with all that entails. The problem is that the EU is rallying.. and may (if my hypothetical narrative is correct) take a very dim view of the UKs actions.. Brexit may now be innevitable.. because the EU wants rid of perfidious Albion.. not because Rees-Mogg wants it.

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    Yeah, I'm gonna need a few citations on this conspiracy theory please.
    – Philbo
    Commented Dec 17, 2018 at 8:31
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    In particular, it doesn't answer the question. Even if your theory were correct, how does that answer the point about the timing of Article 50?
    – gerrit
    Commented Dec 17, 2018 at 11:12
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    We triggered it without a plan because we didn't care. We didn't think we would actually Brexit.. or thered be an EU to Brexit from at the end of the process. We will never... Ever leave a functioning EU. We will also never ever stop trying to break the EU. The question is how long the EU will put up with it.
    – Richard
    Commented Dec 17, 2018 at 12:32
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    Grammatical mistakes usually indicate a high level of trollness. As does the wall-of-text and the strange use of question marks. Still, it wasn't all in capitals.
    – RedSonja
    Commented Dec 17, 2018 at 14:18
  • You do realize that you're a stereotype?
    – Richard
    Commented Dec 17, 2018 at 14:40

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