The Supreme Court ruling that Theresa May cannot trigger Article 50 without parliament’s approval is a shot in the arm for democracy. But this is only one step in parliament reclaiming its rightful role of holding the government to account. 

The prime minister must now produce a White Paper setting out her plan, hold a proper debate and give parliament a meaningful say on any Brexit deal she reaches with the EU. MPs and peers need to be fully involved at the start, middle and end of the Brexit process. Given May’s endless attempts to avoid parliamentary scrutiny, this will only happen if parliamentarians put their feet down.

There will be a few who think parliament should now refuse to authorise the triggering of Article 50. But this is unrealistic – and, given the referendum result, would be hard to justify to most of the electorate. Outside the ranks of the SNP and the LibDems, there are precious few MPs who would go along with this. For any parliamentary action to have impact, it needs the support of the lion’s share of the Labour Party and a number of Tory MPs too.

Some think parliament should now give May clear directions about what sort of Brexit deal she should cut – for example, that we should stay in the single market. Given that there is no majority in parliament for the hard, destructive Brexit that the prime minister set out in her speech last week, this may seem a more promising line of attack. 

The snag is that there isn’t any majority either for any particular form of soft Brexit. It’s all very well to say one wants to stay in the single market; but that doesn’t mean much if one is not prepared to sign up for free movement of people. Much of the Labour Party balks at that.

Be fully involved

The better way forward is for parliament to insist on being fully involved in the Brexit process – building on the ideas contained in the recent all-party Brexit committee’s report.

At the start of the process, this means May should produce a proper White Paper setting out her negotiating priorities backed up by evidence. There should then be a series of debates before Article 50 is triggered, during which different options for trade and free movement – as well as cooperation on foreign policy and security – can be discussed. The prime minister thinks that giving one speech outside parliament fulfils her promise to produce a plan. It doesn’t.

Once the process is kicked off, parliament must be informed of the progress of the negotiations and receive the key documents.

But it’s at the end of the process that MPs and peers have the biggest battle to fight. May has agreed that parliament will have a vote on the final deal. But she has said that, if they vote it down, Britain will merely leave the EU without any agreement, which could be disastrous. She also hasn’t given any timetable for bringing the deal to parliament. All this is unsatisfactory.

Parliament should insist on scrutinising any draft agreement on the same timetable that it is put to the European Parliament, currently pencilled in for autumn of next year. This would mean there’s sufficient time for our parliament’s views to be taken into account. 

Without such a cast-iron commitment – and given May’s track record of trying to wriggle out of promises to keep parliament involved – it’s quite possible that she won’t ask for the approval of MPs and peers until after the European Parliament has ratified an agreement. By then, the two-year process will be close to an end and there will be little option but to rubber stamp it.

If there is a meaningful vote on the final deal, other options open up. One is that, if May comes back with a dreadful deal, MPs and parliament may then decide the people should be consulted and given the chance to stay in the EU. That, too, would be a triumph for democracy. After all, part of the point of a democracy is that the people can change their minds.

by Hugo Dixon | 24.01.2017

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