Yesterday’s High Court ruling is a huge setback for Theresa May’s “Brexit-means-Brexit” government at Westminster. The latest twist is another shock in Britain’s Brexit journey, but we are becoming used to them by now.
May has always said she believes that, having won the support of the people of the UK, the government could trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty – beginning formal exit negotiations with the EU – on its own, without any further approval needed from MPs.
Yet the High Court has now said that is not the case – a decision that the government is now set to appeal – perhaps ironically, to European courts.
Few people will have gone into the polling booth in June with any idea that if we voted to leave the European Union, that decision would then be subject to a vote in Parliament. Of those who did think it was a possibility, next to no-one could have said that with confidence.
However, that is where we are today, but who knows where we will find ourselves next, as the consequences unravel? That Brexit is a thing of surprises and unexpected turns is something that we have all had to accept.
Scrutiny of what Britain’s position will be is the transparency that is so often demanded of governments. This in itself is to be welcomed.
But we must be prepared to accept that exercising this right is likely to put the government in a weaker bargaining position when it comes to negotiating the terms of exit with the rest of the EU. That is the trade-off.
The ruling will be used by some anti-Brexit campaigners to delay or potentially derail the entire process. It will add further strength to the arguments of those who say Brexit will never happen.
And it could quite easily lead to a general election at Westminster – further political turmoil we had not anticpated, but part of the chain of events that is now taking place.
May’s spokespeople have insisted that that is not the case – that a general election will not be called until 2020, when the next election is scheduled to take place, and that May intends to stick to her March 2017 deadline for triggering Article 50. However, it is unclear what, in reality, will play out.
The government might deny at the moment that it will go to the country seeking a mandate for Brexit, but it may be left with no choice, if parliament rejects – and continues to reject – the terms proposed by the Prime Minister.
At the moment, that looks like it could be a strong possibility as the “hard Brexit” is met with disapproval from many MPs.
However, ultimately, Parliament must not disrespect the decision that the electorate has made in a straightforward referendum, where “out” defeated “in”.
Whatever happens in Parliament as a result of the court ruling has to be about how the UK exits, not whether it still wants to exit. The legitimacy of the result should not be denied. That would be a betrayal of the very kind of democracy that was demanded by those who campaigned for last night’s ruling.