he House of Commons gave the government, by an overwhelming majority of 498 votes to 114, the right to proceed on the basis of the 23 June referendum and file the notice for leaving the European Union under article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. There was never even a shadow of doubt about which way the House would vote, even though prior to the referendum almost three quarters of the House was in favour of remaining in the EU. The turnaround is based on the argument that the will of the people cannot be denied even if it means individual MPs voting against their considered judgment and opinion.
It is therefore a legitimate point to wonder over what was all the fuss about the High Court and then the Supreme Court deciding that only Parliament had the right to trigger the notice to leave the EU under article 50. Parliament got that right and promptly handed it over to the government. Given this rather tame end, one is also within one’s rights to wonder why the government bothered to resist a move which in the end meant as close to nothing as makes no difference. Surely the government and its whips must have known the mood in the House which was that irrespective of what their feelings were before the referendum, the will of the people as expressed in the referendum was paramount and that denying the government the right to proceed under article 50 would tantamount to denying the will of the British people, which is not a road down which many MPs would like to go.
Undeterred by the futility of the last challenge, a fresh challenge was launched in the High Court seeking a ruling that parliament must separately legislate to remove the UK from the European Economic Area (EEA) and the single market. The purpose of the challenge was to ensure that any move to take the UK out of the EEA would need the approval of the House of Commons. The move was based on the contention that the 23 June vote did not mean that the UK should leave the common market; there was, after all, no mention of the common market on the referendum ballot paper and that if the final decision was to leave the EEA, that decision could only be taken by Parliament.
Two senior judges of the High Court heard the case for just under an hour and decided to block it. It was just as well they did, for here was another challenge destined to lead nowhere.
Here again, irrespective of the legal argument, it is the politics that would override, even if the plaintiffs had got a ruling in their favour. MPs have shown that even though they may personally be convinced of the grave financial implications of leaving the EU, those whose constituencies voted in favour of leaving would not find themselves in a position to vote against a bill seeking British exit from the EEA.
In fact, that weight of public opinion, the majority of which was shown to be in favour of leaving the EU last June, is still perceived to be so heavy, that some of the people behind the petition had preferred to remain anonymous, being identified only by initials. This is because they feared the possibility of physical harm and the even more real possibility of verbal abuse by supporters of Brexit. In the last case there was a volley of abuse, including threats to life and limb, directed against Gina Miller, the lady who brought the action requiring Parliament to trigger article 50. However, two of the men who have brought the action have identified themselves, one of them being Peter Wilding, the man credited with coining the term ‘Brexit’. The other, Adrian Yalland, runs a pro-single market organisation with Wilding called British Influence, and had voted for Britain to leave the EU in the June referendum. He has been a campaigner for Parliamentary sovereignty for over two decades and now wanted Parliament to decide the all-important issue of leaving the single market. The referendum, he says, was on membership of the EU, not the EEA.
Some of the other applicants were perhaps foreigners from the EU countries now living in the UK, whose number is said to be around 2.8 million, and who fear that they may find themselves in a ‘state of limbo’ after Britain has left the EU. But as explained, the case was a political non-starter because the EU has made it repeatedly clear that there can be no membership of the single market without free movement of people and it was to stop this free movement of people that the referendum was all about. There are very few MPs who will be willing to put their political careers on the line – and perhaps even their lives – by voting in favour of staying in the single market at the cost of allowing the free movement of people. That simply is not going to happen in present day Britain, so everyone better tighten their seat belts and get ready for a hard Brexit, a complete break from Europe. And the consequences can go and hang themselves! •