So now we know. The Supreme Court has spoken, and Ministers need an Act of Parliament to give them the legal powers to leave the EU. But Acts of Parliament are hard to come by, and this one needs to happen quickly, so what next?
The draft Act will get underway immediately, because there’s no time to lose. The danger will come from amendments which look superficially reasonable, but which try to spin the Brexit timetable out beyond the next General Election in 2020. The judges made things a lot easier by deciding that the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish haven’t got a legal veto, so the draft Act can be super-short and as simple as possible. Even so, diehard Europhiles in the SNP and Lib Dems will probably table huge rafts of amendments which meddle or delay.
Fortunately, few MPs will oppose Brexit head-on. A few irreconcilable pro-Europeans will huff and puff, but it ought to go through the Commons with a big majority because elected MPs are, almost by definition, democrats first and foremost. So they will subordinate their personal views to the referendum decision.
Reassuringly, Labour has promised to support the Act too. And even with Jeremy Corbyn’s shaky grip on his MPs, that should be enough to get it through. Many Labour MPs voted Remain in the referendum, but represent northern constituencies which voted strongly to leave. They know that Ukip are waiting to pounce if they step out of line.
So Labour’s leadership will spend a lot of time tabling amendments of their own, asking for things they know won’t succeed, to establish bridgeheads on issues they think will be important later on. Their tactics are to focus on process, asking for more debates and more votes on this or that, as a smokescreen to divert attention from their Party’s deep splits about the substance of Brexit. But that means the worst they can do is delay the process, rather than derailing it entirely.
But what about the House of Lords? They have plenty of ardent pro-Europeans so will they delay Brexit, or even derail it entirely?
Probably not, because they know it would be suicide to take on not just the democratically-elected MPs in the Commons but a referendum decision too. Expect to see them using the same palette of heavily-disguised delaying tactics as their fellow-travellers in the Commons, and there will be weighty pronouncements about the need for careful assessment of all the risks, and for complex problems to be analysed in depth, with long and slow timetables for taking evidence and weighing views. But they will almost certainly stop short of torpedoing the Bill outright, because delaying tactics, even if they’re brilliantly subtle, are vanishingly unlikely to fool anyone.
Ultimately, their Lordships know that if the country decides an unelected upper chamber has got too big for its boots, it could easily provoke a backlash. Reform would suddenly be in the air. Tumbrils would start to roll. People would start asking why these people were, literally, lording it over us.
So the Supreme Court may have done us a favour by making Brexit into a clearly political decision for Parliament, rather than a legal one for judges. Because it means elected politicians have the final say and, even if it’s a bumpy ride, the referendum result should be respected in the end.
Sign up to John's Newsletter
John's Local Campaigns
John's National Campaigns
- Best Brexit John has formed a cross party group of MPs to find the ‘Best Brexit’ deal.
- Low Cost Britain Cheaper Food, energy and utilities.
- Build Up Not Out Making homes more affordable and saving green fields by axing planning restrictions on the height of urban buildings.
- UK Productivity & Growth Rebalancing our economy with less debt, and more investment in growth.