Legislation will be introduced “within days” to keep Theresa May’s timetable for leaving the EU on track, after the Prime Minister suffered defeat in a historic legal battle over Brexit.
By a majority of eight to three, judges at the Supreme Court rejected the Government’s plan to use prerogative powers to trigger withdrawal talks under Article 50 of the EU treaties, ruling that ministers must first obtain the consent of Parliament.
Downing Street insisted the ruling would not derail the Prime Minister’s deadline of invoking Article 50 by the end of March. And Brexit Secretary David Davis told the House of Commons that a “straightforward” bill would be tabled to give effect to the decision of Britain’s voters.
He said the Supreme Court ruling did not affect the fact Britain will be leaving the EU in line with the result of the 2016 referendum, telling MPs: “There can be no turning back. The point of no return was passed on June 23 last year.”
Delivering the court’s verdict, Supreme Court president Lord Neuberger stressed: “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.”
Withdrawal from the EU would mean a “fundamental change” to the UK’s laws by cutting off one of its sources, as well as changing the legal rights of British citizens, he said.
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“The UK’s constitutional arrangements require such changes to be clearly authorised by Parliament,” said Lord Neuberger.
“To proceed otherwise would be a breach of settled constitutional principles stretching back many centuries.”
No date has yet been set to begin the process of taking an Article 50 bill through the Commons and Lords, with officials at Mr Davis’s Department for Exiting the EU due to finalise its wording over the coming days.
Mr Davis said: “Parliament will rightly scrutinise and debate this legislation, but I trust no-one will seek to make it a vehicle for attempts to thwart the will of the people or frustrate or delay the process of exiting the European Union.”
With Labour declaring it will not frustrate the invocation of Article 50, there was little doubt the Prime Minister can get a bill through Parliament.
But she risks having her hands tied in negotiations by any conditions inserted by MPs into the legislation, with the Scottish National Party declaring it will table 50 “serious and substantive” amendments.
Mr Davis resisted pressure from MPs in the Commons to commit himself to a White Paper setting out Mrs May’s objectives in withdrawal negotiations.
Number 10 insists that Mrs May has already set out her aims in full in her Lancaster House speech last week, but the chair of the Commons Exiting the EU Committee, Hilary Benn, said that the failure to spell them out in a formal paper would show “a lack of respect” to Parliament.
Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary, Sir Keir Starmer, warned that the PM’s speech set out a “high risk” strategy, containing “big gaps, inconsistencies and unanswered questions” which could impose a heavy cost on British families and businesses.
He warned that it would be “wrong” for ministers to try to stop MPs amending Mr Davis’s bill.
Sir Keir denounced the Government’s decision to appeal an earlier High Court defeat in the Supreme Court as “a waste of time and money”.
But Mr Davis insisted it was right to test the legal position in the highest court in the land.
Attorney General Jeremy Wright – who led the Government’s court battle – acknowledged ministers were “disappointed” by the judges’ ruling, but said they would “do all that is necessary to implement it”.
To relief in Downing Street, the judges unanimously rejected a bid to require Mrs May to consult devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
“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,” said a Number 10 spokesman.
“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.”
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’s Alex Salmond confirmed plans to table multiple amendments, adding: “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.”
The 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.
But 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 investment broker Gina Miller, the lead claimant in the case against the Government.
Speaking outside 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.”
A lawyer for co-claimant Deir Dos Santos described the ruling as “a victory for democracy and the rule of law”.