The British Supreme Court ruled earlier this week that the U.K. Parliament would have to vote in order to trigger Article 50 and legally begin the Brexit process. The decision came after Theresa May’s Conservative government lost its hard-fought appeal to allow the government to invoke Brexit on its own, without the will of Parliament.
But the ruling is clear: MPs must cast their ballots. The question is, which way? Moreover, with allegiances divided, will they listen to their leaders?
While both major party leaders campaigned for the Remain camp last spring, they will not do so in advance of the vote. The prime minister, who set out her 12-point Brexit plan earlier this month, seems bent on a hard and fast Brexit–which is to say, one that takes Britain out of the European single market as swiftly as possible whilst giving the country back control of its borders.
The day after the ruling, May gave into parliamentary pressure and said she would lay out her plan in writing in advance of the vote. “I recognize that there is an appetite in this House to see that plan set out in a white paper,” she said on Wednesday. “I can confirm to the House that our plan will be set out in a white paper published in this House.”
Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn, who was criticized for his half-hearted campaigning in support of Remain last June, said Labour will not go against the will of the British people. “Labour respects the result of the referendum … and will not frustrate the process for invoking Article 50.” But he went on to add that he would “seek to amend the Article 50 bill to prevent the Conservatives using Brexit to turn Britain into a bargain basement tax haven off the coast of Europe.”
Having said this, Corbyn’s grip on his own party is tenuous at the best of times. With many Labour MPs representing constituencies that voted heavily against Brexit, it stands to reason some—if not many—will be tempted to disobey their leader and vote against the bill. Catherine West, Corbyn’s shadow foreign minister, told the press she was opposed to Brexit not least because, she says, her constituency voted by 81.5 per cent in favour of Remain. “The best way I can represent my constituents, and indeed protect our national interest, is to vote against invoking Article 50.”
The Tory chief whip, Gavin Williamson, was reported to have held urgent meetings with potential rebels within his party after several rogue Tory MPs stood up in Parliament and demanded clarity from the prime minister in advance of the vote.
Longstanding Brexit supporters, however, remained undaunted in the face of the court decision. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson tweeted cheerfully, “Supreme Court has spoken. Now Parliament must deliver will of the people—we will trigger A50 by end of March. Forward we go!”
Brexit Secretary David Davis, meanwhile, warned that Remain supporters should not get any big ideas, as the vote is “not about whether the U.K. should leave the European Union. That decision has already been made by people in the United Kingdom … There can be no going back. The point of no return was passed on 23 June last year.” He added that any MP who voted against triggering Article 50 would be attempting to effectively “thwart the will of the people.”
UKIP Leader Paul Nuttall used even stronger language, declaring ominously, “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.”
With the March deadline looming, Davis promised to set out a bill that is “straightforward,” possibly within days. It is unclear whether the prime minister’s much-anticipated white paper will come in advance of Davis’s draft legislation.
The government did have one clear win in the ruling. The Supreme Court also found May did not need permission from the devolved administrations—Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland—to trigger Article 50.
In response, the Scottish first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, said she will do everything in her power to hamper the bill, including putting forward 50 “serious and substantive” amendments. Scotland, unlike the rest of the U.K., voted 62 per cent in favour of Remain. Sturgeon also said the decision meant Scotland was no longer an equal partner in the union, and she once more raised the prospect of another Scottish independence referendum—this one centred on the issue of Brexit.
The case was brought before the court by a group of concerned citizens, including investment manager Gina Miller. She said this week Brexit was “the most divisive issue of a generation,” but added that the court’s decision was “not about politics, but process.”
Hair stylist Deir Tozetti Dos Santos, who also campaigned for the vote, told the press, “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.”