Column / Brexit Briefing
Article 50 ruling changes nothing
By Benjamin Fox
Thursday’s ruling by the High Court came as a shock. Few expected financier Gina Miller to become an unlikely heroine for constitutional lawyers.
Yet it is hard to see how requiring a parliament vote to trigger Article 50 will amount to anything more than a small bump in the road towards Brexit.
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Theresa May is expected to use a phone call to Jean-Claude Juncker on Friday (4 November) to say that the March 2017 deadline will not be affected. There is little reason to doubt she is correct.
If May is smart, she and her ministers will accept the ruling and get on with it.
Denying MPs a vote on launching the negotiating process was petty and unnecessary, spuriously setting up elected members of parliament as enemies of democracy. Appealing the case to the Supreme Court, as May’s office indicated they will do, would cost the taxpayer millions in legal fees.
More importantly, it would also be bad politics.
Dragging the case out will simply entrench the gaping divide between Leave and Remain voters. The reaction to the High Court ruling in the tabloid press and Twitterati divided along partisan lines.
Nigel Farage’s dire warning that “a betrayal may be at hand” suggests that we can soon expect a campaign for the Tower of London to be re-opened offering public execution for Remainers.
That would make the debate even more toxic.
MPs will not vote to stop Brexit
One point needs to be clearly spelt out: requiring a parliament vote before Article 50 can be triggered will not stop Brexit. The chances of MPs defying the June referendum results are slim-to-none.
Politicians want to be re-elected. Refusing to back the will of the 52 percent is a sure-fire way to lose your seat.
However, it does enshrine the idea that while Theresa May’s administration has a mandate to pull Britain out of the EU, it does not have a mandate for what Brexit should look like.
This will embolden the MPs who have been campaigning for greater parliamentary scrutiny over Brexit and for May to reveal the broad principles of her negotiating strategy.
“Democracy has been asserted,” said former Conservative education secretary, Nicky Morgan, on Thursday, although she, too, stated that MPs would vote in favour of triggering article 50.
More plausible than an act of insurrection by MPs is that the House of Lords uses the parliamentary vote to hold the process up.
Most of the Peers are Remain supporters and, unlike their neighbours in the Commons, they don’t have to worry about having to face the wrath of the 17.4 million Leave voters at the ballot box.
Conservative peer Patience Wheatcroft, who signalled her intention to block and delay the negotiating process over summer, told BBC on Friday that “it is only right to delay triggering article 50 until we have a clearer idea of what it actually entails. And I think there will be others in the Lords who feel the same way.”
Election likely to settle Brexit question
Leaving the Lords aside, the need for a specific mandate on the terms of Brexit increases the chances of a snap election – which May would almost certainly win comfortably – in the next six months.
Given that the Conservatives sit 10-15 points ahead of Labour in the polls, with the Liberal Democrats below 10 percent and UKIP in disarray, most Conservative MPs will fear an election much less than their opponents.
Britain’s pro-Europeans need to be careful about the message and the messengers.
Case in point was the response to valid interventions by former Labour and Liberal Democrat leaders Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg, both pro-Europeans, which just looks like a coalition of the losers, both of the referendum and last year’s general election.
One key player - and not a loser - will be London Mayor Sadiq Khan. So, too, will be the newly appointed House of Commons committee on Brexit.
The cross-party Brexit has a majority of Remain supporters, while Labour’s Hilary Benn, a former cabinet minister, has been elected as the chair. Both Benn’s committee and Khan can bring influence to bear, but will have to pick their battles carefully.
In truth, neither the committee nor parliament as a whole will stop Brexit - even if its members wanted to.
Gina Miller and the High Court have struck a blow against untrammelled executive power. But the political reality is that the deck is still stacked in Theresa May’s favour.
Benjamin Fox, a former reporter for EUobserver, is a consultant with Sovereign Strategy, a London-based PR firm, and a freelance writer