YES! The Supreme Court Tells Would-Be Tyrant Theresa May That Act of Parliament is Required to Trigger Article 50 and Leave EU; Now MPs Must Fight to Scrap Brexit

24.1.17

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Great news from the grown-ups in the room today — the Supreme Court — as the highest judges in the land have confirmed what the High Court ruled nearly three months ago: that the government cannot trigger Article 50 — the mechanism for leaving the EU — without an authorising act of parliament, as Lord Neuberger, the President of the Supreme Court, stated in a summary of the court’s decision, delivered by a majority of 8-3.

As the Guardian described it, Lord Neuberger “said the government generally has a prerogative power to change treaties, but it cannot do that if it will affect people’s rights.” As the summary of the court’s ruling stated, “The change in the law required to implement the referendum’s outcome must be made in the only way permitted by the UK constitution, namely by legislation.”

The judges added, “The Supreme Court holds that an Act of Parliament is required to authorise ministers to give notice of the decision of the UK to withdraw from the European Union.” See the full ruling here.

From the beginning, when Theresa May was the only minister left standing after the bloodbath that followed the EU referendum’s outcome, it was outrageous that a decision that was supposed to be about the importance of restoring sovereignty to the UK was hijacked when May, who had nominally been a Remain supporter, instead revealed herself as a would-be tyrant who was intent on ignoring the fact that sovereignty in the UK resides with Parliament and not with the Prime Minister or her cabinet.

That outrageous assertion has now been definitively overturned, but the hostility of so many Leave voters towards our judges has not only been contemptuous; it has also revealed how, fundamentally, they don’t care about genuine democracy, and would happily settle for being ruled by a tyrant, so long as she — or he — is part of the Tory establishment.

And what a waste of time and money! The latter is bad enough, but the time wasted, on an appeal that was always almost 100% certain to fail, can only reinforce the realisation that, despite its permanent bluster, the party that created the EU referendum nightmare (via David Cameron, with his unparalleled hubris and arrogance) has fatally wounded itself in the fallout, but is refusing to show it.

The arrogant, authoritarian, racist, xenophobic and Islamophobic May and her idiot Brexiteers — the foul Liam Fox, the pathetic clown Boris Johnson, and the misguided David Davis, clearly out of his depth — have no idea what they are doing, and are endlessly involved in a process of putting on a brave face, papering over the cracks, and pretending that wishful thinking and endless flag-waving will prevent Brexit from doing what it will undoubtedly do — hole our economy below the waterline, leaving us a tiny defenceless fish in a vast ocean of international trade, with no way of preventing the rest of the world from either ignoring us, because of our laughably high and deluded opinion of our importance, or subjecting us to new deals that exploit us mercilessly.

Even with this Supreme Court decision, though, the fundamental problem with the referendum remains apparent — that it was only advisory, and that it should not be implemented, because doing so will be the most damaging, unprovoked, self-inflicted wound imaginable.

As a House of Commons Briefing Paper in June 2015 explained (on page 25, under the heading, ‘5. Types of referendum’), with emphasis added:

This Bill requires a referendum to be held on the question of the UK’s continued membership of the European Union (EU) before the end of 2017. It does not contain any requirement for the UK Government to implement the results of the referendum, nor set a time limit by which a vote to leave the EU should be implemented. Instead, this is a type of referendum known as pre-legislative or consultative, which enables the electorate to voice an opinion which then influences the Government in its policy decisions. The referendums held in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in 1997 and 1998 are examples of this type, where opinion was tested before legislation was introduced. The UK does not have constitutional provisions which would require the results of a referendum to be implemented, unlike, for example, the Republic of Ireland, where the circumstances in which a binding referendum should be held are set out in its constitution.

The excerpt on Article 50 from Ian Dunt's book 'Brexit: What The Hell Happens Now?'As for the damage that Brexit will cause unless we can prevent — or, hopefully, unless newly-empowered MPs can prevent it — see the photo on the left that contains a key excerpt from Politics.co.uk editor Ian Dunt’s essential book Brexit: What The Hell Happens Now?

I was first alerted to this excerpt by the human rights lawyer Sarah Kay in late November, and I tweeted this excerpt at the time, featuring the chilling words of former Italian Prime Minister Giuliano Amato, who had drafted Article 50, under pressure — ironically — from the British. Dunt described it as “a punishment mechanism,” a description with which Amato concurred. “I wrote Article 50, so I know it well,” Amato said, “My intention was that it should be a classic safety valve that was there, but never used.” As Dunt explained, “Article 50 will make any country that leaves the EU suffer. If another leader ‘is as mad as Cameron’ and offers a referendum on leaving the EU, Amato warned, they should know that: ‘When it comes to the economy, they have to lose.’”

I’m only halfway through Dunt’s brilliant little book, and will write more about it soon, hopefully, but it is conspicuously well-researched, and full of extremely well-grounded concerns about quite how disastrous Brexit will be, if we proceed with it, in marked contrast to the simplistic jingoism of Leave voters and Brexit’s cheerleaders in the government. Dunt explains the problems with all the proposed options for life outside the EU; primarily, as I see it, that overturning 43 years of laws and treaties is not only, to my mind, like deliberately cutting a living body in half but then having only a few minutes to conduct the major surgery required to not let the patient die, but also that we will end up with desperately unfavourable trade deals within the EU and absolutely no leverage with any country outside the EU, which will be able to insist on terms that are unfavourable to British interests.

In Dunt’s introduction, he proposes a nightmare scenario whereby, in March 2019, at the end of the two-year negotiating period triggered by Article 50, with the economy in tatters, we are forced to accept a trade deal with the US whose demands “are horrendous. Consumer protections are reduced across the board, along with environmental regulations and safeguards for the NHS.” Dunt concludes his introduction as follows: “UK civil servants have little option but to capitulate. The only way to protect what remains of the British economy is to sell off British sovereignty. The control wrestled from Brussels is now sold off to the highest bidder, behind closed doors, in a conference room in Washington.”

So now it’s over to the MPs. David Davis announced today that he intends to  introduce a “straightforward” Brexit bill this Thursday, explaining, as the Guardian described it, that “the legislation would be narrow, focusing only on the question of triggering article 50, and warned that it must not be used as a ‘vehicle for attempts to thwart the will of the people, or frustrate or delay the process of our exit from the European Union.’”

However, that smacks of his desperation — like so many in the Leave camp — not to be confronted by the hideously bleak realities of what Brexit entails, and we have every right to urge MPs to resist any bullying in an effort to rush through a simple-minded fantasy of “freedom” that may well end up like Ian Dunt’s nightmare scenario.

The government, endlessly pushing its “hard Brexit” plan, has made it clear that, to secure alleged control over our borders, we will be leaving the single market, but the single market is a key element in Remain voters’ fears, as well as an issue that responsible Leave voters worry about, and any effort to stifle full debate about what the various options entail, or to insist that there can be no question of refusing Brexit if it turns out, on close analysis, to be the single most suicidal act by a nation state, must be resisted.

Last month, 89 MPs — 23 Labour, 5 Lib Dems, 51 SNP, Green MP Caroline Lucas, Ken Clarke of the Conservatives and eight others — refused to blindly support an effort by Theresa May to bully them into agreeing to the triggering of Article 50 regardless of what it might entail, and these MPs and others will be crucial. After all, three-quarters of all MPs supported Britain remaining in Europe, and although many represent constituencies where a majority of those who voted opted for a Leave vote, I believe they must be prepared to stick to their principles, and engage with their constituents to try and persuade them why it would be so disastrous to proceed with Brexit, and, if necessary, sacrifice their seats to save the economy from disaster.

I’m slightly reassured that, according to the Guardian, “About 60 Labour MPs are preparing to defy any party order to vote in favour of triggering article 50, with frontbenchers expected to resign if a three-line whip is enforced.” Jeremy Corbyn, the paper noted, recently “made clear that Labour MPs would be asked to vote for triggering article 50 because his party does not want to block the Brexit process.”

Nevertheless, MPs and shadow ministers in constituencies that voted Remain have made it clear that they will vote against any bill triggering Article 50.

As the Guardian explained:

Catherine West, the shadow foreign minister who was elected MP for Hornsey and Wood Green in 2015, said: “Theresa May has allowed the hardline Brexiters within her own party and the rightwing media to dictate the form of Brexit, discounting the views of the 48% who voted to remain and more importantly disregarding the national interest.

“In Hornsey and Wood Green we secured the highest remain vote in the UK with 81.5%. The best way I can represent my constituents, and indeed protect our national interest, is to vote against invoking article 50.”

Tulip Siddiq, the shadow minister for early years, said she would vote in line with her strongly remain-leaning Hampstead and Kilburn constituents.

Owen Smith, the Labour MP for Pontypridd who challenged Corbyn for the leadership last summer, said he saw the issue as a defining political moment for his generation of politicians as well as the country.

“I have reached the decision that whatever the impact on my career, however difficult it may be to swim against the Brexit tide, I cannot, in all conscience, stand by and wave through a course of action that I believe will make our people poorer and our politics meaner,” he wrote in an article for the Guardian.

“I cannot vote to trigger article 50 on the wing and a prayer that Brexit will do as the prime minister says, and make Britain a fairer, more prosperous and equal society. Because I do not believe that is true.”

Neil Coyle, whose Bermondsey and Old Southwark constituency was also strongly remain, echoed those concerns, saying he fundamentally disagreed with the decision to leave the EU, regardless of the referendum result.

Coyle said finance sector jobs in his constituency were already being lost. “London is losing out as a result now. More damage will come as the implications of Brexit expand,” he said.

“For this reason, I am one of the growing number of Labour MPs who will not vote to trigger article 50. I made a simple promise in the May 2015 general election that I would not support in parliament anything that would harm people in my constituency.”

He said Labour whips should allow MPs to vote in line with their constituents, adding: “Labour should not sign up to the economic damage the government is pursuing. May is drafting her economic suicide note and Labour must not sign it with her.”

He said Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit secretary, could “pursue a whipped abstention for Labour MPs or could cause every person who loses work or other opportunities between now and the next election to hold Labour culpable in their misfortune”.

Other backbenchers including Ben Bradshaw, David Lammy and Daniel Zeichner also said they would not back a Brexit bill. Bradshaw, a former secretary of culture, sport and media, tweeted: “I will not vote to destroy jobs and prosperity in #Exeter & the wider South West with a hard Tory #brexit. I will vote against #Article50.”

Chris Leslie, a former shadow chancellor, said: “I believe Theresa May’s approach to Brexit will cause harm to our economy, place barriers for businesses who will find it harder to sell goods and services, and leave us with less growth and fewer decent job prospects than if we choose a different approach.

“I am not, therefore, inclined to vote in favour of a bill that would endorse the government’s ‘hard Brexit’ strategy. I will instead work with MPs from across all parties to amend and significantly improve any article 50 legislation, so that parliament gives a steer to the government to salvage our participation in the single market and avoid the UK economy falling off an economic cliff edge in 2019.”

I hope soon to look in more detail at the role MPs need to play in not only resisting a “hard Brexit,” but resisting Brexit altogether, but for now it is reassuring that the would-be tyrant and her clowns have been told in no uncertain terms by our most senior judges that their disdain for their fellow MPs, and for any form of debate on the terms of Brexit, which was never spelled out at the time of the referendum, is unacceptable.

As Tory MP Anna Soubry explained, in the Guardian’s words, “MPs should be able to discuss not just the triggering of article 50 but also the decisions to abandon the single market and free movement without debate or a vote.” As she said, “What has my honourable friend [David Davis] got to lose with a debate on a white paper?”

The answer, I hope, is their credibility, which only survives because it is cocooned in nothing but jingoistic platitudes. What Brexit would actually entail needs to be exposed to the sunlight, where, I believe, its credibility will evaporate like a vampire.

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose debut album ‘Love and War’ and EP ‘Fighting Injustice’ are available here to download or on CD via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and the Countdown to Close Guantánamo initiative, launched in January 2016), the co-director of We Stand With Shaker, which called for the release from Guantánamo of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison (finally freed on October 30, 2015), and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by the University of Chicago Press in the US, and available from Amazon, including a Kindle edition — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here — or here for the US).

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6 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Great news as the Supreme Court rules definitively that the would-be tyrant Theresa May must allow Parliament to vote before triggering Article 50, the mechanism for us leaving the EU. Now MPs will be able to properly scrutinise what leaving the EU actually means, and enough of them will hopefully conclude that leaving the single market to be able to close our borders will be the most extraordinary act of economic suicide, and absolutely not worth pursuing. It is my position that we now need to work to persuade MPs (75% of whom supported Remain) to prevent Brexit from happening.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Tory MPs are now taking on May and her ministers. The Guardian added the following to its article about Labour MPs, now retitled, ‘Rebel Tories demand more say on Brexit as May loses supreme court fight’:

    Davis and May will have to fight off several attempted amendments, including from MPs in their own party who want more of a say over specific decision to leave the single market and customs union.

    Gavin Williamson, the Tory chief whip, held urgent meetings with potential rebels after seven Conservative MPs stood up in the Commons to urge May to publish her Brexit plan as an official white paper that could then be formally discussed in parliament.

    Tory MP Ben Howlett told the Guardian that he wanted the government to take that step so that his constituents could “have their views heard”. Nicky Morgan, the former education secretary, agreed: “What we haven’t yet debated is that relationship between single market, freedom of movement and the customs union.”

    Dominic Grieve, the former attorney general, also pressed his government for action.

    “I think a white paper is immensely desirable and in my view is helpful to government if it can be available as they go through the article 50 process,” he said, arguing that it would simply formalise the government strategy in a “reasoned fashion”.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    So Citigroup is announcing that it’s actively looking to move its operations to the EU once the UK Brexits. If these exodus plans spread throughout the banking sector, is there a tipping point at which the government will refuse to implement Brexit? https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/jan/24/citigroup-new-operations-away-london-brexit-eu-financial-hub

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Another useful Guardian article this week looking at the impact on London of Brexit. There are differing opinions about the financial fallout, but Ian Dunt, in ‘Brexit: What The Hell Happens Now?’ point out the importance of ‘passporting’, which allows banks to sell types of financial products across Europe. As he notes, “Some 5,500 City firms hold 330,000 passports. The most important stem from from the EU Markets and Financial Instruments Directive, which allows groups to sell investments from one EU country to another.” https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2017/jan/23/post-brexit-london-economic-self-sabotage

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Essential reading, by the way – Ian Dunt’s ‘Brexit: What The Hell Happens Now?’: https://www.canburypress.com/store/p22/Brexit-What-the-hell-happens-now-Ian-Dunt-ISBN-9780995497825
    Dunt is the editor of Politics.co.uk, which I also recommend highly: http://www.politics.co.uk

  6. Andy Worthington says...

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo, co-director, We Stand With Shaker. Also, singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers) and photographer.
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