U.K. govt. must get Parliament nod for Brexit: Supreme Court

Verdict upheld:A man waves a European Union (EU) flag outside the Supreme Court, in central London on Tuesday.— PHOTO: AFPDANIEL LEAL-OLIVAS  

The British government’s plans to commence the process of leaving the European Union speedily this spring met with uncertainty as the Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled that the U.K. could not trigger Article 50 — the EU article that sets out how a country can leave the union — without a parliamentary vote.

It upheld the verdict of the High Court last year. However, the court ruled that the government would not have to consult the devolved legislatures in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

The government, which has accepted the verdict, has said it plans to stick to the existing timetable to trigger Article 50 by the end of March. Brexit Secretary David Davis told the House of Commons legislation would be introduced in a matter of days, to give the government the legal power to commence negotiations. “This will be the most straightforward bill possible,” he said during a lively session in Parliament on Tuesday. It was right that Parliament scrutinise and debate, he said, but it should not “thwart” the “will of the people” or disrupt the government’s timetable.

By 8 to 3, the justices ruled that the government could “not hold any power if it would thereby change U.K. laws, unless it is authorised to do so by Parliament”, Lord Neuberger, President of the Supreme Court, said on Tuesday, accepting the claimants’ argument that leaving the EU would change U.K. law and the rights of its residents. The justices rejected government arguments that the 1972 European Communities Act allows for minsters to withdraw from EU treaties without going to Parliament.

On the devolution issue, the court considered the Sewel Convention that states that Westminster did not legislate on devolved issues, and ruled that while the convention played an important role, the “policing of its scope and operation is not a matter for the courts”.

Blow to government

Though the judgment was widely expected — and the government has insisted it will stick to its original timetable of triggering Article 50 by the end of March — it is a significant blow to the government, which has clung onto its insistence that the executive’s prerogative powers could see it through the triggering of Brexit. In her speech last week, Prime Minister Theresa May conceded parliamentary involvement but only to give the final Brexit deal the go-ahead, well after Article 50 had been triggered.

“Only Parliament can grant rights to the British people and only Parliament can take that away. No Prime Minister, no government, can expect to be unanswerable or unchallenged, Parliament alone is sovereign,” said Gina Miller, one of the claimants, speaking outside the Supreme Court.

Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn said that while his party would not “frustrate the process for invoking Article 50”, it would seek to amend the bill to prevent the government from turning Britain into a “bargain basement tax haven off the coast of Europe”.

The Supreme Court ruling has added uncertainty to the government’s timetable. While the Liberal Democrats (who hold 9 seats in Parliament) have said they will vote against the triggering of Article 50 unless a second referendum on the terms of Brexit is held, the Scottish National Party (with 54 MPs) has said it could bring as many as 50 amendments to the legislation.

Labour’s Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer said the party would seek amendments to ensure proper scrutiny and accountability throughout. “The end result will be better if scrutinised than it would otherwise be,” he said. The Labour holds 229 seats to the Conservatives’ 329.

The government also faces the prospect of opposition — and amendments — in the House of Lords, where its ability to control the timetable is more limited, and where the Conservatives do not have a majority. However, it is still possible for the government to force the legislation through the upper house rapidly if needed.

Long-term tensions

While the developments regarding the devolved governments will have been welcomed in U.K. government circles, it also adds to longer term tensions: the Scottish government has said it could push for a second referendum in the wake of a hard Brexit, and Tuesday’s verdict is likely to breathe life into the independence movements.

It also has to be remembered that the court is not the last legal challenge to the government’s Brexit plans — there are more challenges, including a move to require the government to keep the U.K. in the European Economic Area, and even legal challenges in Dublin due to commence later this week. The referendum and the role of Parliament and government have divided society like few others: Ms. Miller, the claimant, has spoken repeatedly about the torrent of hate she has been subject to since commencing her court case.

Things were quiet outside the Supreme Court as the judgment was delivered — a handful of protesters gathered in the icy conditions. However, media outlets that supported the Leave campaign were quick to post incendiary headlines: “Yet again the elite show their contempt for Brexit voters!” screamed the headline on the Daily Mail website.

Labour Party says it will seek amendments to ensure

proper scrutiny of

the Brexit process