When David Cameron delivered his resignation speech outside No 10 on Friday, he said he would leave the task of triggering article 50 of the Lisbon treaty – the untested procedure governing how an EU member state leaves the bloc – to his successor.

This has prompted much speculation – and a glimmer of hope for those who want Britain to remain in the European Union. Cameron, they argue, had repeatedly said during the campaign that article 50 would be triggered immediately if Vote Leave were to win the Brexit referendum.

By not doing so, the theory is, and by bequeathing the responsibility to whoever succeeds him, Cameron has handed the next prime minister a poisoned chalice. Given the dramatic reaction to Brexit – on world stock markets, on the foreign exchanges, in Scotland, across Europe – and with the enormity of the consequences of leaving the EU now plain, who will dare pull the trigger?

One consequence of this, as a below-the-line commenter argued on the Guardian website, is that Cameron has effectively snookered the Brexit camp: they may have won the referendum, but they cannot use the mandate they have been given because if they do so they will be seen to be knowingly condemning the UK to recession, breakup and years of pain.

This could mean, as lawyer and writer David Allen Green has suggested in a blogpost, that “the longer article 50 notification is put off, the greater the chance it will never be made … As long as the notification is not sent, the UK remains part of the EU. And there is currently no reason or evidence to believe that, regardless of the referendum result, the notification will be sent at all.”

Is this feasible? Certainly, leading Brexit campaigners, including Boris Johnson and Matthew Elliott, who ran Vote Leave, have said very clearly they are in no hurry to push the button.

They argue it is far more sensible to hold informal talks with Brussels, and other member states, in order to arrive at the outline of a possible settlement before locking Britain into the strict two-year timeframe within which article 50 negotiations must be concluded (and if they are not, Britain risks having to leave the EU with no deal at all).

In Brussels and other EU capitals, the UK’s heel-dragging is already causing great frustration. European foreign ministers and EU leaders have lined up this weekend to impress on Britain the need for urgency. Brexit talks must begin “immediately”, they said, so as to avoid a sustained period of uncertainty and instability that, with Euroscepticism on the rise across the continent, could do great damage to the already weakened bloc.

But there seems to be no immediate legal means out of the stalemate. It is entirely up to the departing member state to trigger article 50, by issuing formal notification of intention to leave: no one, in Brussels, Berlin or Paris, can force it to. But equally, there is nothing in article 50 that obliges the EU to open talks – including the informal talks the Brexit leaders want – before formal notification has been made.

Read more: The Guardian Will art icle 50 ever be triggered?

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