THE government’s defeat in a historic court battle over Brexit will not derail Theresa May’s plan to trigger negotiations on withdrawal from the EU by the end of March, Downing Street has said.
With Labour declaring it will not frustrate the invocation of Article 50 of the EU treaties to kick off the talks, there was little doubt the prime minister can get a bill through Parliament.
But she risks having her hands tied in negotiations by conditions inserted by MPs into the legislation, with the Scottish National Party declaring it will table 50 ‘serious and substantive’ amendments.
By a majority of eight to three, judges at the Supreme Court rejected the government’s argument that the prime minister could use prerogative powers to kick off the talks under Article 50, ruling instead it must first seek Parliament’s approval.
Ministers are now expected to publish a short bill authorising the invocation of Article 50, with votes to take place in the Houses of Commons and Lords soon.
Attorney General Jeremy Wright — who led the government’s legal fight — said ministers were ‘disappointed’ by the ruling, but added: ‘The government will comply with the judgment of the court and do all that is necessary to implement it.’
A Downing Street spokesman said: ‘The British people voted to leave the EU, and the government will deliver on their verdict — triggering Article 50, as planned, by the end of March. Today’s ruling does nothing to change that.
‘It’s important to remember that Parliament backed the referendum by a margin of six to one and has already indicated its support for getting on with the process of exit to the timetable we have set out.
‘We respect the Supreme Court’s decision, and will set out our next steps to Parliament shortly.’
To relief in Downing Street, the Supreme Court judges unanimously rejected the argument that Mrs May must also consult devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland before triggering Article 50.
Brexit secretary David Davis was due to set out the government’s plans in detail in a statement to MPs this afternoon.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said his party would not ‘frustrate the process for invoking Article 50’ but would seek to amend the legislation to prevent the UK becoming a ‘bargain basement tax haven’.
‘Labour is demanding a plan from the government to ensure it is accountable to Parliament throughout the negotiations and a meaningful vote to ensure the final deal is given parliamentary approval,’ said Mr Corbyn.
The SNP, the third largest party in the Commons, said it will put forward 50 ‘serious and substantive’ amendments to the legislation.
Former first minister Alex Salmond said: ‘If Theresa May is intent on being true to her word that Scotland and the other devolved administrations are equal partners in this process, then now is the time to show it.’
Liberal Democrats, who have just nine MPs but more than 100 peers, will vote against Article 50 unless there is a guarantee of the public having a vote on the final deal, said leader Tim Farron.
Ukip leader Paul Nuttall warned MPs and peers not to hamper the passage of the legislation.
‘The will of the people will be heard, and woe betide those politicians or parties that attempt to block, delay, or in any other way subvert that will,’ he said.
The Supreme Court ruling was welcomed by Gina Miller, the lead claimant in the case against the government.
Speaking outside the court, she told reporters: ‘This ruling today means that MPs we have elected will rightfully have the opportunity to bring their invaluable experience and expertise to bear in helping the government select the best course in the forthcoming Brexit negotiations.’
David Greene, the lawyer for the other claimant, pro-Brexit hairdresser Deir Dos Santos, said: ‘The court has decided that the rights attaching to our membership of the European Union were given by Parliament and can only be taken away by Parliament.
‘This is a victory for democracy and the rule of law. We should all welcome it.’
The highest court in the land rejected an appeal by ministers against a High Court judgment blocking their decision to begin Britain’s exit from the European Union without Parliament having a say.
Supreme Court president Lord Neuberger said: ‘By a majority of eight to three, the Supreme Court today rules that the government cannot trigger Article 50 without an Act of Parliament authorising it to do so.’
Giving a short summary of the court’s findings, Lord Neuberger said: ‘The issues in these proceedings have nothing to do with whether the UK should exit from the EU, or the terms or timetable for that exit.’
Explaining the majority decision, he said: ‘Withdrawal effects a fundamental change by cutting off the source of EU law, as well as changing legal rights.
‘The UK’s constitutional arrangements require such changes to be clearly authorised by Parliament…
‘The referendum is of great political significance, but the Act of Parliament which established it did not say what should happen as a result.
‘So any change in the law to give effect to the referendum must be made in the only way permitted by the UK constitution, namely by an Act of Parliament.
‘To proceed otherwise would be a breach of settled constitutional principles stretching back many centuries.’
Lord Neuberger said the three dissenting justices considered the government could trigger Article 50 without an authorising Act of Parliament.
In their view ‘Parliament has not imposed any limitation on the government’s prerogative power to withdraw from the Treaties’.
The court ruling stated it was ‘entirely a matter for Parliament’ what form the Article 50 legislation should take.
It added even a very brief Act would still have ‘momentous significance’.
‘There is no equivalence between the constitutional importance of a statute, or any other document, and its length or complexity,’ the judgment stated.
A Downing Street spokesman told reporters at a regular Westminster media briefing that Mrs May continued to have ‘full confidence’ in the attorney general.
Mrs May was informed of the outcome of the case ‘very, very shortly’ before it was announced in court, he said
The spokesman insisted it was ‘right’ for the government to appeal against the High Court ruling.
‘We were confident in our arguments and it was right that they were tested,’ he said.
The spokesman declined to speculate on how much the bill for the legal action will cost the taxpayer.
It remains the government’s position that, once Article 50 is invoked, it is irreversible, the spokesman confirmed.