British PM Theresa May faces potential MP revolt following Brexit court ruling
UK Prime Minister Theresa May is heading for a rebellion over her Brexit strategy, after this week’s bombshell high court ruling that the UK cannot leave the European union without the permission of the British parliament.
Thursday’s decision, that the government could not press ahead with triggering article 50 of the Lisbon treaty, the formal process for beginning Brexit, without first consulting MPs and peers in the Commons and Lords, represents a dramatic setback for the prime minister. May had argued that she had the personal authority to begin the process without a parliamentary vote on the issue.
Parliamentarians are unlikely to block Brexit outright, given that 52 per cent of voters among the public opted, on 23 June, to leave the EU, but the need for legislation gives MPs the opportunity to disrupt the process by demanding May reveal more details about her plan for negotiating the terms of departure.
Sources said that a cross-party group of Tory and Labour MPs met on Thursday afternoon to discuss how the ruling could be used to force May to reveal more about her broad negotiating aims.
Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit secretary, said he now believed it was “inevitable the prime minister will have to answer the big questions” on whether she wanted the UK to be in the single market or the customs union, as there appeared to be a majority of MPs demanding greater transparency.
“This is about accountability and scrutiny,” he said. “Very many MPs accept and respect the referendum of course, but the terms upon which we exit are vitally important. I think there is now consensus that the prime minister has got to disclose the overarching strategy. The idea that we are all to be kept in the dark until some time in 2019 only has to be said to be rejected.”
May has repeatedly insisted that she will deliver the “best possible deal for the country” but has so far refused to specify whether that deal would include access to the single market or enhanced immigration controls.
Within hours of the judgement, senior Conservatives were openly calling for a change of approach. Andrew Tyrie, chair of the Treasury committee, said May’s government needed to be “much more transparent about its objectives in the negotiations, in some detail, and the sooner the better”.
He added: “It should also ensure that parliament can scrutinise the objectives and vote on them. The UK is leaving; a public debate is needed about where we want to arrive. Before taking off, it is always a good idea for the pilot to discuss with the passengers and crew where they might want to land.”
Nicky Morgan, the former education secretary, told BBC Two’s Victoria Derbyshire show: “It does need to be not just a vote, but a formal short bill about the triggering of article 50, and then the focus is on that. The other thing, of course, that parliament will want then is a clearer plan on the government’s Brexit plans and that will be, I think, important in helping the government to win that vote.”
On the other side of the debate, the ruling infuriated many eurosceptics, with several Tory MPs suggesting May should call an early general election to get another mandate from voters.
Dominic Raab, the former minister and Tory MP, said any attempt to stall the triggering of Brexit could increase the chances of an early general election. “If we get to the stage where effectively [some MPs] are not willing to allow this negotiation to even begin, I think there must be an increased chance that we must go to the country again. I think that would be a mistake and I don’t think those trying to break the verdict of the referendum would be rewarded,” he said.
Douglas Carswell, the Ukip MP, even suggested it showed there needed to be reform of judicial appointments, while the party’s leader, Nigel Farage, said he feared a “betrayal may be near at hand”. He said: “I now fear that every attempt will be made to block or delay the triggering of article 50. If this is so, they have no idea of the level of public anger they will provoke.”
Tory MP Stephen Phillips, said on Friday, he was resigning his seat with immediate effect over “irreconcilable policy differences with the current government”.
Phillips, a lawyer who works as a judge as well as sitting in the House of Commons, campaigned for Brexit, but protested at May’s attempt to implement it without going through Parliament.
His resignation means May faces another by-election, though the seat is a safe Tory one: Phillips won 56 per cent of the vote in 2015, followed by Labour on 17 per cent.
The prime minister is expected on Friday to speak to Jean-Claude Juncker, the European commission president, to discuss her plans for keeping the article 50 process on track.
However, the unanimous judgement delivered by three of the most senior judges in England and Wales will make it difficult for government lawyers to overturn the ruling in the supreme court and avoid delay.
The three judges, the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Thomas, the Master of the Rolls, Sir Terence Etherton, and Lord Justice Sales, at one stage dismissed the government’s argument as being “divorced from reality”.
Government lawyers had argued that prerogative powers were a legitimate way to give effect “to the will of the people” who voted by a majority to leave the EU in the referendum. But the lord chief justice declared: “The government does not have power under the crown’s prerogative to give notice pursuant to article 50 for the UK to withdraw from the European union.”
Additional reporting by Bloomberg