Full Speed Ahead for Brexit

The Government got the result it expected this morning from the Supreme Court – defeat on whether it could trigger Article 50 without an Act of Parliament, but crucially no provision of a veto for Scotland or Northern Ireland. Further, the Act of Parliament can (and thus will) be brief and therefore difficult to amend.

Ministers are confident that these verdicts leave them on course to trigger Article 50, and the two year exit process, by the end of March. That date, by the way, was not arrived at arbitrarily: if the UK is still a member of the EU in the spring of 2019 it would have to take part in the next elections to the European Parliament, which would not be welcomed by leaders on either side of the Channel.

The Brexit Secretary David Davis appeared at lunchtime in the House of Commons. The Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary sat alongside him on the frontbench, to demonstrate their support for his approach. Mr Davis confirmed that the Government will introduce a “simple and straightforward Bill within days”, and seek to get it through Parliament in the coming weeks as speedily as possible – “in good time”, he said, to hit the end March deadline.

The extent to which Ministers are pretty relaxed today was demonstrated by the fact that multiple Cabinet Ministers went out of their way to praise the independence and wisdom of the judiciary – something they notably did not do when they were surprised by the original High Court ruling.

The House of Commons has already voted, late last year, by a majority of 373 for the Government to trigger Article 50 by the March deadline. So, with Jeremy Corbyn pledging “not to frustrate” Article 50, and with the number of Conservative MPs expected to vote against the Government on the ultimate question perhaps being as few as one (inevitably Ken Clarke), a three figure majority in the lower house still remains likely. In the Commons, making amendments to attach conditions will be quite difficult, if the Bill is tightly worded, since the Speaker and the Clerks have to agree that they are directly relevant.

The House of Lords poses more of a problem. Amendments are much more easily made and considered in that Chamber. The Government does not have a majority, and many of those Conservatives who are there are (generationally, and instinctively) much more strongly pro-European than those who have had to face Tory voters on the doorstep in the last twenty years. There are more than 100 Lib Dems in the upper house, plus strongly pro-European Labour and cross-bench peers, all of whom would be happy to see both the Government and the Brexit process challenged.

This means that the two Chambers might engage in a period of “ping-pong”, in which the two exchange votes not only on the triggering of Article 50, but also on the attachment of conditions such as a second referendum or a requirement to seek continued maintenance of the Single Market.

Even so, Ministers still expect that in the end the unelected Chamber will not defy both the elected House and a decision reached in a referendum with the highest turnout of any UK contest in the last two decades.

Ministers do not therefore expect to be blocked by the House of Lords, but if they are they plan to demand an early General Election to face down the peers. Those with long memories will recall that in the twentieth century three General Elections were fought by Prime Ministers asking the electorate to decide “who governs Britain”. In every case, the PM in question failed to win a majority. Mrs May might therefore be better advised to seek to use the Parliament Act, which enables the Commons to over-rule the Lords if it passes the same Bill in two consecutive sessions, or employ (ironically, given this morning’s Supreme Court judgement) the Royal Prerogative to create huge numbers of new Peers to overcome resistance.

The attractions of an early Election nonetheless seem obvious (even though Mrs May has said she does not want one, and it would require cross-party consent given the Fixed Term Parliament Act). Conservative confidence continues to be buoyed by stellar opinion poll ratings (leads of 16 and 17 points in two polls this week) and the continuing tribulations of the Labour Party.

Labour’s existential dilemma over Brexit keeps adding to the problems of the party. Keeping progressive middle class professionals and traditional working class communities within the same tent is ever more challenging. Labour currently holds more than 40 out of the 50 most pro-Remain constituencies in the country and over 40 of the 50 most pro-Leave ones too. Pleasing them both simultaneously on this issue would challenge the greatest of political talents, and Mr Corbyn appears currently only to be antagonising both halves of the Labour coalition as he seeks neither to block Brexit nor to embrace it. To Tory amazement, recent polls show them well ahead of Labour in Scotland, and even among working class voters across the UK. Labour will be focused for the next month on defending two potentially vulnerable seats in by-elections. For all these reasons, the Government feels under little pressure from Her Majesty’s Opposition.

Today’s developments have not acted as a brake on the Brexit plans of Ministers. If anything, they have touched the accelerator a bit. Many real issues of substance and detail still lie ahead, and the Supreme Court’s ruling has not altered the fact that these will inevitably be decided by negotiating teams and not individual Parliamentarians.

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