One would think that with parliamentary sovereignty at stake, as the connotations of only the third nationwide referendum in British history make their way through the court system, all eyes at the current time would be on the Supreme Court as it prepares to confirm just who has the right to invoke Article 50.
Article 50 when triggered will formally notify the rest of Europe of Britain’s intention to withdraw from the European Union. In early November, three of England and Wales’ most eminent judges ruled in the High Court that regardless of the result of June’s advisory referendum, the government could not invoke Article 50 before obtaining some form of parliamentary consent.
According to their interpretation, while the royal prerogative does afford the government scope to conduct its own international relations, including the signing of treaties, to invoke Article 50 would be to take steps which would inevitably deprive the people of the country of rights which they currently possess thanks to European Union law.
The government immediately appealed the decision, sending it up to the Supreme Court. But the High Court ruling should have provided succour to the rightful opponents of Brexit, including not only the Liberal Democrats, the Scottish National Party, the Greens, and the outward-looking and intelligent, but also the heavy-breathing, mostly inert, disagreeable but still just about sentient Labour Party.
While 51.89% of voters opted for ‘Leave’ in last June’s referendum – 17,410,742 voters from a total of 33,577,342, which represented a turnout of 72.21% – ‘Remain’ was backed by 216 of Labour’s 230 MPs, and by a reported 63-65% of Labour’s supporters.
Instead prominent Labour figures were as quick as far-right Conservatives to dismiss the High Court’s reasoned conclusion. Deputy leader Tom Watson grumped ‘we’re not going to hold this up. The British people have spoken and article 50 will be triggered when it comes to Westminster’. And he was swiftly followed by party leader Jeremy Corbyn, who averred that although the government must show ‘transparency and accountability’ to parliament, still ‘Labour respects the decision of the British people to leave the European Union’.
In the intervening weeks the overbearing John McDonnell described Brexit as a ‘tremendous opportunity’, purportedly causing further disunity in the shadow cabinet. In fact Labour politicians seem to be striking the same note, half whimpering and half compliant, whinnying uncomfortably while resolutely throwing their hands up to Brexit.
Now Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit secretary, has sought to cut the Supreme Court off at the knees, stymieing the political process before the process has even had the chance to be enunciated. As the Supreme Court opened its hearing, on the pretence of holding Theresa May to account, Starmer was busy in the House of Commons making sure that Brexit goes full steam ahead regardless of what the Supreme Court judges have to say on the matter.
Starmer and the Labour Party forwarded a motion calling for ‘the prime minister to commit to publishing the government’s plan for leaving the EU’ before the invocation of Article 50. The motion was passed by 448 votes to 75, but only after Starmer and Labour readily admitted a Tory amendment to ‘call on the government to invoke Article 50 by 31 March 2017’.
While Labour hailed a parliamentary victory, Starmer and his colleagues were mocked by hard-line Brexiters like David Davis, Ian Duncan Smith, and Douglas Carswell, because they had agreed in principle to the government’s timeline while adding nothing which would force the government to reveal anything substantial about their intended negotiation strategy.
Starmer stressed that he would measure any published plan against five tests:
- Does it end uncertainty surrounding the Government’s position on fundamental issues such the access to the single market, the customs union and transitional arrangements?
- Does it include sufficient detail to allow the Brexit select committee and other relevant Parliamentary bodies to carry out their scrutiny functions effectively?
- Does it enable the Office of Budget Responsibility to do its job properly in assessing the economic impact of Brexit?
- Does it include sufficient detail to allow the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to be assured that their particular and specific concerns are being addressed?
- Will it help build a national consensus on Brexit?
He added that a ‘late vague plan will not do’. But the ever astute Ken Clarke – the only Conservative MP who refused to back the motion – accused Starmer of just such obscurity. He said ‘This word “plan” is being used in an extremely vague way, and could cover some of the vague assertions that ministers have been making for the last few weeks’, calling instead for a full policy document in the form of a white paper.
The Liberal Democrats, Scottish Nationalists, and Green MP Caroline Lucas voted against the motion, with Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron tweeting ‘Labour & Tories holding hands towards a hard Brexit, refusing to seek the will of the people on the deal. I want democracy not a stitch up’. Nine Labour MPs also mustered the courage to vote against, with Ben Bradshaw noting that the motion gives Downing Street ‘a blank cheque to invoke article 50 without any of us being any the wiser about the government’s intentions’.
But 149 Labour MPs backed the amended motion, with the rest simply abstaining, as the party heeds the calls made by the likes of Starmer to become increasingly anti-immigrant, bewilderingly compliant, and stridently irrelevant. The Supreme Court still has a ruling to make, but Labour have already tied the hands of parliament.
A version of this article originally appeared at The Shimmering Ostrich.