Eurosceptics urge prime minister to precipitate showdown with pro-EU MPs
Theresa May is under growing pressure from pro-Brexit campaigners to press ahead swiftly with a House of Commons vote to trigger the Article 50 EU divorce clause, rather than wait for a Supreme Court ruling that may not come until January.
Mrs May intends to appeal against a High Court ruling which said that parliament must have a vote on triggering Article 50 — raising concerns in Downing Street that it could turn into a messy and time-consuming parliamentary battle.
Tory Eurosceptic MPs and the Leave Means Leave pressure group are now urging Mrs May to precipitate a showdown with pro-EU MPs.
The move comes amid signs that some Labour and Tory MPs who campaigned for Remain in June’s referendum are wary about using a vote on activating Article 50 to achieve their main aim of forcing the government to show its negotiating hand.
Julian Lewis, one Tory Eurosceptic, said an early vote on Article 50 would show if pro-EU MPs were “sincere” when they said they would not try to frustrate the will of the people: 52 per cent backed Brexit in June’s referendum.
Richard Tice, the property magnate and co-chair of Leave Means Leave, said: “Holding a vote in parliament at the soonest opportunity will render the Supreme Court appeal irrelevant. The High Court ruling was an inconvenience, but it is time to move beyond it.”
Mrs May is said by allies to be determined to press ahead with the Supreme Court challenge; even if she loses she believes she can still pass legislation to activate Article 50 before her March 31, 2017 deadline.
Her confidence is partly based on uncertainty among pro-EU MPs at Westminster — 480 or so of 650 backed Remain — about how to push Mrs May to give more details of what Brexit will look like but various options are under discussion:
If the Supreme Court rules against the government, Brexit minister David Davis says the “assumption” is that legislation would have to go through both the House of Commons and Lords to activate Article 50.
Government lawyers will try to make any bill as tightly worded as possible to avoid it being amended by pro-EU MPs and peers to require the government to publish a white paper setting out its negotiating objectives before Article 50 is invoked.
But some Remain supporting Labour and Tory MPs fear that even if they did succeed in amending the bill, the government could outmanoeuvre them and force them into an unwelcome binary choice between accepting or rejecting Article 50.
Few MPs are prepared to be seen by voters as obstructing the referendum result. Anna Soubry, the former Tory business minister, said: “I don’t want to confuse the triggering of Article 50 with the publication of the principles of the negotiation.
“If the two are conflated, it will fuel the claims of those people who say this is all about delay and thwarting the result of the referendum.”
Pat McFadden, a former Labour business minister, said: “On the Labour side, if it comes to blocking Article 50, there isn’t much appetite. If it’s about pressing the government to give more detail, there is appetite.”
Former Liberal Democrats leader Nick Clegg, former Labour leader Ed Miliband and former Tory minister Nick Herbert want to put down a motion calling on the government to publish its negotiating strategy.
This would have the advantage of separating the issue from the Article 50 vote and the motion could be put forward before Christmas, pre-empting the Supreme Court, which will hear the government’s appeal in December but may not rule until the new year.
The downside is that the motion would not be binding on the government, but it would put pressure on Mrs May to show more of her negotiating hand.
“How is it remotely possible to build national consensus unless the government is far more transparent with the country and the House of Commons about their plans for the Brexit negotiations,” Mr Miliband said this week.
Mrs May is already looking to publish some more details — possibly before Christmas — but whatever she produces is unlikely to satisfy those who are demanding full transparency.
Mr Miliband has argued that a backbench bill and attempts to amend Article 50 legislation are not mutually exclusive; MPs may try both approaches.
“What MPs want is much more of a sense of direction of travel before they’re asked to buy the ticket,” Mr McFadden said. “When they ask questions about the government’s proposals, MPs are not denying democracy but doing a legitimate job on behalf of voters who voted leave or remain.”
Mr Clegg and the Lib Dems want to put pressure on Mrs May to call a referendum on the final outcome of her EU negotiations, to make sure that voters are really happy with “the destination” at the end of the Brexit journey.
But those co-ordinating the cross-party pro-EU campaign say there is little support for this among Tory Remainers or in the Labour party, whose MPs often represent strongly pro-Brexit constituencies.
November 9th, Financial Times