High Court right on Brexit

Today’s decision by the High Court articulating the need for parliament, not the government, to have the ultimate say on when Article 50 should be triggered is a welcome one. In contrast, the immediate decision taken by the Department for Exiting the EU to appeal it to the Supreme Court, Liam Fox having otherwise promised in the Commons to ‘consider the judgment carefully’ (yes, for all of five seconds), is nonsense and it is to be hoped that common sense may yet prevail. On the other hand, looking at the politicians involved – this is perhaps unlikely.

The High Court’s decision changes nothing by itself – pace the referendum itself being advisory only (a point that is well worth repeating), the UK is still leaving the EU; and (EU citizens’ rights and future participation in EU-funded projects apart) the Article 50 withdrawal process mostly concerns the administrative mechanics of the departure rather than the stuff that is more interesting, such as about the future relationship with the EU, including on trade, and the £350m/week that the NHS is now going to get (or not). Invoking that procedure, as momentous as it’s going to be, is actually going to turn out to be a little less dramatic than all that.

But, the significance of the High Court’s commendable decision is that it does (or, rather, it may do, depending on the outcome of the appeal) force government personnel to stop hiding behind their meaningless ‘Brexit means Brexit’ mantra and instead involve parliament in developing a plan for what the UK, post-EU membership, is actually going to look like once the more or less fixed two-year period expires after Article 50 is invoked. It is very likely that such a plan (or, at least, someone’s version of one) does exist – but it is right that it should be the property of parliament, not the cabal of leading Brexiteers Prime Minister Theresa May (a long-standing sceptic on EU matters, her decision to come out for ‘Remain’ was surely a tactical domestic one within Conservative party politics), Foreign Secretary Boris ‘Titanic‘ Johnson, Brexit Secretary David ‘power to the people‘ Davies and Trade Secretary Liam ‘business is fat and lazy‘ Fox – all of course new in post since the referendum result. Make no mistake, we have had a coup since June 23rd – a very British coup, perhaps: but, nevertheless, a coup which has placed in power the hard right of the Tory party. The government might claim that to reveal its plan is to disclose its negotiating strategy – but any negotiator understands that the ends of a negotiation are little to do with the strategy one undertakes to get there. Furthermore, what precisely otherwise is May talking to other EU leaders (next stop: Budapest) about on her autumn tour? She is not talking strategy but, unless she is talking only about the weather, she is talking about ends (much as the EU might be seeking to restict discussion until such times as the UK invokes Article 50). There is, therefore, a plan – it’s just that the cabal was hoping to keep parliament out of it.

For what reason – and what it might then do should (and if) it be compelled by the courts to act differently – is open to conjecture. In the meantime, we might well wonder what it looks like outside the UK when the cabal that is in control of this process is so determined to keep parliament out of it. Leaving the EU has such significance that ‘the people’ must be involved in the process of withdrawal and that, in a parliamentary democracy, means that our elected representatives must be fully involved at every stage. (As indeed must we all, by the way.) That is a celebration of democracy, not a subversion of it. In contrast, to seek to restrict that involvement, to couch it in secrecy, betrays the terms of the national discussion we had during the referendum and cheapens the sovereignty of parliament, on behalf of which ‘take back control’ was advanced to such great effect by Brexiteers during the campaigning. Who’d have thought that, eh?

Post-publication edit: also well worth reading on the politics of this: Ian Dunt; and Hugo Dixon on why the next step should be a Green Paper.

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