It is official. Parliament will be given a say on Article 50, thanks to the High Court ruling in Gina Miller’s court case. There are some that have leapt on the ruling as an affront to democracy – Suzanne Evans, one of the frontrunners in the Ukip leadership election, complained that ‘activists judges’ have attempted to ‘overturn’ the will of the British public. At the other end of the spectrum, some have been quick to view the ruling as an opportunity to fatally obstruct Brexit. Both are wrong in equal measure. Britain will, and must, leave the European Union. In ruling in favour of Miller, the courts have simply reasserted the primacy of parliament over the executive – something that Remainers and Brexiteers, be they Labour, Tory or Liberal Democrat, should be thankful for.
Perhaps to burnish her credentials as a ‘One Nation’ Tory – or more likely to keep her braying backbenchers at bay – Theresa May placed herself at the vanguard of the hard Brexit camp, with all the zeal one would expect from a convert. In doing so, she set out to bloody the noses of those she perceived to have ‘refused’ to accept the result of the referendum – with, apparently, those that asked awkward, necessary questions about the government’s plans for Brexit in their number. In doing so, May worked against her own interests.
If May wanted the cleanest possible Brexit, free from even more acrimony than had already been created throughout the referendum, she should never have sought to bypass parliament by reaching for the royal prerogative so readily. It is of the interests of all parties to be seen to be working constructively to make a success of Brexit – and few, if forced into a corner, would seek to obstruct the settled will of the British people. Indeed, now that the ruling has been passed down (presuming it is not overturned by the Supreme Court) Labour, the Liberal Democrats, and other broadly pro-European parties will also be forced to spell out their priorities for Brexit negotiations.
That the government fought so bitterly to keep parliament from being given a say betrays the weakness of May’s position. The double-digit poll leads the Conservative party currently enjoys are not a reflection of public confidence in the government, but its complete revulsion at a Labour party leadership that has nothing to say on the big issues of the day. Keir Starmer, Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary, has performed admirably in this environment, with a derisory amount of support from the leader’s office, but it will take more than the efforts of one individual (even if that individual happens to be a ‘first-rate lawyer’) to convince the public that Labour could manage Britain’s exit from the EU. A functioning opposition would respect the central role that immigration played in the referendum and set about outlining their priorities, both for the negotiations and for a post-Brexit Britain.
If Labour had the courage to listen to its own voters, it would make the most of the opportunity this ruling has handed them and begin to piece together a progressive, patriotic vision for Britain outside of the EU. Labour MPs like Rachel Reeves, Chuka Umunna, Stephen Kinnock and Emma Reynolds have started to get to grips with the difficult question of free movement, and the potentially competing priority of single market membership. Only when the leadership begins to seriously engage with these issues will Labour be able to place May on the back foot. But it remains to be seen if it is able – or even willing – to do so.
Jerome Neil is events officer and editorial assistant at Progress. He is also a Labour councillor in the London borough of Merton He tweets @JeromeNeil
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