The UK Parliament must vote to authorise triggering Article 50, the British Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday (24 January), in a landmark verdict and a blow to Theresa May’s government.
May has promised to trigger the Article – the ‘exit’ clause of the Lisbon Treaty – by March but had fought against giving the legislature which is largely pro-EU membership, a say in the matter.
That momentum is now in question.
Today’s split ruling by the Supreme Court now forces her to gain approval of parliament, where her Conservative Party has only a working majority of 16.
“Today, by a majority of eight to three, the Supreme Court rules that the government cannot trigger Article 50 without an Act of Parliament authorising it to do so,” said Lord David Neuberger, the president of the court.
Speaking on behalf of the government, Attorney-General Jeremy Wright said they would accept the verdict.
Wright said the government was “disappointed”, however. The Secretary of State for Exiting the EU, David Davis, later told parliament that the necessary draft legislation would be presented “within days.”
Davis told MPs the “straightforward” legislation would allow the government to move ahead “swiftly” with its timetable of beginning the formal process by the end of March.
No say for Edinburgh, Belfast and Cardiff
However, the detailed summary of the ruling stresses that the devolved legislatures in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland do not get a veto on triggering Article 50.
Both Scotland and Northern Ireland voted heavily in the 2016 referendum to stay in the EU, but the overall UK vote was 52%-48% to leave.
Alex Salmond, the former Scottish First Minister in Edinburgh, and now SNP foreign affairs spokesman in Westminster said he would table “serious and substantive” amendments to the likely bill.
Downing Street ‘respects’ verdict
Within 10 minutes of the Court’s ruling – which did not leak ahead of time – Downing Street had put out a statement accepting it must go to parliament.
He also pointed out that MPs had originally voted overwhelming to grant the 2016 referendum, a veiled warning that they should now respect its result.
A spokesman said: “The British people voted to leave the EU, and the government will deliver on their verdict – triggering article 50, as planned, by the end of March. Today’s ruling does nothing to change that.
“It’s important to remember that parliament backed the referendum by a margin of six to one and has already indicated its support for getting on with the process of exit to the timetable we have set out.
“We respect the supreme court’s decision, and will set out our next steps to parliament shortly.”
Article 50 begins two years maximum of negotiations between London and Brussels, led by the Commission’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier, on the terms of the UK’s exit.
If talks fail, the UK could drop out of the EU and revert to World Trade Organisation trade and tariff measures.
Only at the point of exit is the UK free to being trade negotiations with third countries, despite May’s visit to see President Donald Trump on a UK-US trade deal on Friday (27 January) this week.
Within a couple of hours, the EU had given its official response to the court decision.
Speaking at the regular midday press conference, a Commission spokesman said: “This was the judgement [decision] for the UK supreme court to take.
“It is now up to the British government, the UK, to draw the consequences of that decision. We are always waiting for the notification so we will not comment on issues pertaining to the internal legal and constitutional order of our member states. We will not comment further.”
But pushed by reporters about a tweet by Bernier last week calling for an ‘orderly exit’, the spokesman added, “If one wants to divorce but remain friends on the basis of a new relationship, first one needs to agree on the terms of an orderly separation. An one where both sides honour their obligations and then on the basis of this build a future, new, good relationship.”
The spokesman was then asked that the difference was between “discussions” and “negotiations” on trade, as May now travels to both Turkey and the US looking at post-Brexit options.
He said: “I would say a discussion is when you sort of express what you’d like to see as part of a menu, and a negotiation is when you start negotiating on the menu and ordering the food. I won’t go any further than that I think it is already too risky. ”
Gina Miller, the private citizen who brought the case against the government, said outside court: “This ruling today means that MPs that we have elected will have elected will rightfully have the opportunity to bring their invaluable experience and expertise to bear in helping the government select the best course in the forthcoming Brexit negotiations – negotiations which will frame our place in the world and all our destinies to come.
There is no doubt that Brexit is the most divisive issue of a generation. But this case was about the legal process, not politics. Today’s decision has created legal certainty, based on our democratic process and provides the legal foundation for the government to trigger article 50.”
The opposition Labour Party, which appears deeply divided between largely pro-EU MPs and a grassroots vote in the north of England and elsewhere in favour of leaving, said it would “not frustrate” the vote in parliament.
However, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said his party would fight to avoid Britain becoming the sort of offshore tax haven suggested by Chancellor Phillip Hammond and others in recent days.
Corbyn said: “Labour will seek to amend the article 50 bill to prevent the Conservatives using Brexit to turn Britain into a bargain basement tax haven off the coast of Europe.
“Labour will seek to build in the principles of full, tariff-free access to the single market and maintenance of workers’ rights and social and environmental protections.”
The Liberal Democrats immediately promised to vote against triggering Article 50, unless the British public was granted a second referendum on the terms of any final exit deal.
However, the Lib Dems have only nine MPs.