Brexit sceptics have won the battle, but will lose the war. Britain’s Supreme Court on Tuesday upheld a previous ruling that Prime Minister Theresa May could not pull Britain out of the European Union without consulting members of parliament. The catch for jubilant Remainers is that it probably won’t stop the same lawmakers voting the exit through.
The inevitability of triggering Article 50, the EU treaty clause that starts a two-year countdown to exit, may not be immediately obvious. About three-quarters of MPs backed Remain in the Brexit referendum, including many of May’s own Conservative Party, and indeed herself. Yet more than 60 percent of opposition Labour MPs represent constituencies that voted Leave in the Brexit referendum, according to an analysis by academic Chris Hanretty. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has said he will ask his party not to block the government’s bill kick-starting the exit process.
If just half of the Labour MPs from Brexit-supporting constituencies side with May, she could survive a revolt from nearly all the 80-odd Conservative MPs from Remain-supporting constituencies. The bigger issue, though, is that much of the wind has been removed from their sails. Efforts to amend the Article 50 bill and force May to lay out her negotiating strategy have less force now that she has given an outline of plans for a clean break softened by a phase-in period.
Another plus for May is that the Supreme Court has stopped short of requiring Brexit consent from devolved parliaments in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast. This lack of say could prompt Scots to call for a second independence referendum of their own. But for May that’s better than them being able to delay the UK’s overall EU exit.
Even if pro-EU MPs muster the numbers to oppose May, they’d struggle to prove that alternatives like staying in the European Economic Area are both viable and preferable. EEA membership means accepting free movement of labour, which is a political no-go, as well as forgoing the right to strike trade deals with non-EU countries – a priority for Brexiteers in the cabinet.
None of this makes the prime minister’s breezy acceptance of the huge risks associated with a hard Brexit any more palatable. But if MPs accept that Brexit means Westminster taking control over borders and UK trade policy, May’s clean-break plan looks like the only game in town.
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