The Cable

No Brexit Without Parliament, Supreme Court Tells May

"Brexit means Brexit" might mean something else now.


British Prime Minister Theresa May may be poised to make a hard Brexit, but if she doesn’t get Parliament’s backing, she won’t be making a Brexit at all.

On Tuesday, the British Supreme Court ruled that May’s government must seek parliamentary approval before triggering Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the mechanism that begins the Brexit negotiation process with the European Union.

The 8-3 decision said “The UK’s constitutional arrangements require such changes to be clearly authorized by Parliament.”

In one sense, this is a blow to May, who argued that Article 50 could be triggered without consulting Parliament by virtue of the Royal Prerogative, the powers the British crown bestows upon the government.

She is set to meet with U.S. President Donald Trump on Friday to discuss, among other things, some sort of bilateral trade deal between the two countries. It’s a good time to do so: Trump just tore up potential trade pacts with 11 countries and is rewriting trade terms with America’s two biggest trading partners. But EU foreign affairs commissioner Federica Mogherini has already said that the United Kingdom and the United States cannot do a bilateral trade agreement until the bureaucratic divorce is finalized.

In another way, this doesn’t change much at all: In the same Jan. 17 speech in which May said leaving the European Union means leaving its single market, she also said she would go to Parliament regardless of the Supreme Court decision. The notion that Parliament could have a say on Brexit after all pushed the British pound to its best day in almost a decade. And the Supreme Court was clear that only the U.K. Parliament, and not its Scottish or Welsh counterparts, needed to approve the bill. (Scotland voted overwhelmingly to remain in the EU.)

Brexit Secretary (a real job) David Davis promised on Tuesday to put a bill before Parliament “within days.” The government wants to trigger Article 50 before the end of March. “It’s not about whether the UK should leave the European Union. That decision has already been made by people in the United Kingdom,” Davis said, referring to last summer’s referendum.The referendum passed by a 52-48 margin. “What does it mean to leave the EU?” spiked on Google trends after polls closed.

Despite that defiance, and despite UKIP leader Paul Nuttall’s very dramatic warning –”woe betide those politicians or parties that attempt to block, delay, or in any other way subvert that will”– it might not be so clear cut.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said that, while he won’t subvert the will of the people, he will add amendments to it “to prevent the Conservatives using Brexit to turn Britain into a bargain basement tax haven off the coast of Europe.” Davis has suggested the bill would allow amendments. And Liberal Democrat chief Tim Farron said his members of Parliament would vote against the bill unless the public as a whole could vote anew on a final deal.

All of this to say that Brexit may still go forward, but the government now must travel a harder road for Ms. May’s hard Brexit.

Photo credit: Leon Neal/Getty Images

Emily Tamkin is the U.S. editor of the New Statesman and the author of The Influence of Soros, published July 2020. Twitter: @emilyctamkin

Tag: Brexit

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