Theresa May has been away in Bahrain, during a trip in which she tested her sea legs by addressing the the crew of HMS Ocean, and revealed that she wants a “red, white and blue” Brexit that left Britain operating within a single European market. She won’t be making it back in time for PMQs today, so Leader of the Commons David Lidington will take her place and face Emily Thornberry across the despatch box. But that doesn’t mean she can escape the latest Parliamentary wrangling over Brexit, prompted by Labour pushing a motion today that called on the Government to publish its plan before invoking Article 50.
Europhile Tories were also threatening to back the motion, which could have been awkward for the Government. So the Prime Minister has called their bluff by tabling an amendment which will ask MPs to back her plan to serve Article 50 by the end of March 2017. Downing Street sources said that it was now time to “see if those who say they accept the result really do”. Brexiteers are pleased by how she has handled this. Steve Baker has called it “superb”, while Jacob Rees-Mogg praises her in today’s paper for not wasting political capital on a “sideshow”. “Everyone knows Theresa May is in charge and that she knows what she wants to do in the lead-up to Article 50,” he writes. “Her position is an authoritative one.”
The amended motion will attract widespread support given that Labour has said it would back it, and only a small number of Tory MPs are expected to either abstain or vote against the Government. If so, they will be joining the Liberal Democrats and SNP, who are expected to vote in defiance of the referendum result. “Those who refuse to back the amendment will be making a public declaration of contempt for the voters,” we warn in our leader. You can stay on top of today’s events with our liveblog here.
The amended motion is important symbolically, but it plays no official role in the Brexit process. It does not trigger Article 50. It is only a commitment to do so by the end of March next year. The Supreme Court is still weighing up whether Theresa May needs to win approval in Parliament before she can formally trigger it. If it does, Philip Johnston fears that the Brexit drama “will move into Parliament where anything can happen“.
Lord Pannick, the QC for Gina Miller, the businesswoman who brought the original case to the High Court, started to set out their case yesterday to the judges. He produced a transcript of last year’s Commons debate on the referendum bill and quoted the words of then Europe minister David Lidington, who said:“The legislation is about holding a vote. It makes no provision for what follows. The referendum is advisory.” Michael Deacon wonders whether “any MPs will remind him of this little matter” when he stands in for Mrs May today at PMQs.
Time is ticking in the meantime, as the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier indicated yesterday that he wants to see the terms of exit agreed by October 2018, so they have time to be ratified by national parliaments within Article 50’s 2 year deadline. He was very keen to stress that “it is much better to show solidarity than stand alone”, in an unsubtle message to EU member states tempted to follow Britain and go it alone. As Theresa May fights to take Britain out of the bloc, the rest of Europe will be looking on with interest.