Still time to stop the Ar­ti­cle 50

The New European - - Agenda -

With an im­passe ahead, it is im­per­a­tive that Re­main­ers in par­lia­ment fo­cus on halt­ing the Brexit timetable, says

BARN­ABY TOWNS, a for­mer

Con­ser­va­tive party ad­viser

When the his­tory of the Brexit cri­sis is writ­ten, the de­ci­sion to trig­ger Ar­ti­cle

50, set­ting the clock tick­ing on the UK’S de­par­ture from the EU – with no plan, prepa­ra­tion or con­sen­sus on the way for­ward – may rank as one of the great­est mis­steps.

Is­sued to im­press Leave vot­ers be­fore last year’s gen­eral elec­tion mis­fire, and to un­der­score gov­ern­ment red lines long since faded in the face of re­al­ity, its ar­ti­fi­cial time-limit in­creas­ingly threat­ens a chaotic and cat­a­strophic no-deal exit. In terms of the self-in­flicted loss of Bri­tish power and in­flu­ence it en­tails, Lord He­sel­tine has called it “the worst de­ci­sion we have made since the war”.

As the coun­try ca­reens to­ward crash­ing out with no With­drawal Agree­ment, no tran­si­tion pe­riod, no trade deal and no set­tle­ment of le­gal and fi­nan­cial re­spon­si­bil­i­ties, the Euro­pean Court of Jus­tice con­firmed that the UK can uni­lat­er­ally re­voke the no­tice. The rul­ing arose from a case brought by a cross-party group of mem­bers of the Scot­tish par­lia­ment. Bri­tain’s Supreme Court re­jected a UK gov­ern­ment bid to stop Europe’s top court from con­sid­er­ing the is­sue, as it sim­i­larly turned down gov­ern­ment ar­gu­ments that is­su­ing Ar­ti­cle 50 did not re­quire par­lia­men­tary ap­proval.

Of course, when par­lia­ment held the Ar­ti­cle 50 vote, both gov­ern­ment and op­po­si­tion im­posed three-line whips – the strictest of par­lia­men­tary in­struc­tions to vote the party line. None­the­less, 47 Labour MPS were joined by for­mer chan­cel­lor Ken Clarke, the sole Tory rebel, the Green MP Caro­line Lu­cas, seven Lib­eral Democrats and the SNP in vot­ing against. But see­ing as the gov­ern­ment’s fail­ure to agree a ne­go­ti­at­ing po­si­tion and to get the With­drawal Agree­ment through par­lia­ment cost pre­cious time, more MPS now want to stop the clock to avert dis­as­ter.

In this, MPS are joined by for­mer prime min­is­ter John Ma­jor, who warns that Ar­ti­cle 50 must be re­voked “with im­me­di­ate ef­fect” be­cause “we need the most pre­cious com­mod­ity of all: time”. His suc­ces­sor, Tony Blair, con­curs, bluntly stat­ing that “Bri­tain will re­quire an ex­ten­sion of time to the Ar­ti­cle 50 process”. The in­ter­ven­tion earned him, but not Ma­jor, a re­buke from Theresa May.

Yet the gov­ern­ment’s de­lay on a vote on the With­drawal Agree­ment leaves fewer than 90 days un­til the cur­rently sched­uled exit date. Even if, against all ex­pec­ta­tion and odds, suf­fi­cient num­bers of op­po­si­tion MPS and Tory hard­lin­ers en­able it to pass, there still isn’t time for leg­is­la­tion to go through all par­lia­men­tary stages be­fore March 29.

Once de­feated, the gov­ern­ment might con­sider a se­ries of in­dica­tive – non-bind­ing – par­lia­men­tary votes on var­i­ous al­ter­na­tives. These would likely in­clude: the so-called Nor­way Plus des­ti­na­tion of re­main­ing in the EU’S in­ter­nal mar­ket and cus­toms union, but

Photo: Getty Im­ages

WARN­ING: For­mer PM John Ma­jor

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