Brexit weekly: 5 things

Supreme Court shenanigans

All eyes were on the Supreme Court this week, as Britain’s 11 most senior judges heard the Government’s appeal against the High Court ruling that MPs must be consulted before article 50 is triggered.

While outside the court protestors – on both sides – chanted, waved placards, and (in some cases) dressed as judges, the atmosphere inside the courtroom was a little more sombre. At the heart of the legal wrangling was the issue of whether the Government should be able to trigger Article 50 under the Royal Prerogative. Government barrister James Eadie QC argued that this was what Parliament had intended, and that the EU referendum had been passed with the “clear expectation” that the Government would implement the result. Full of rhetorical flourishes, claimant Barrister Lord Pannick countered that the 1972 European Communities Act had created a “new legal order” with rights that Government could not simply override, and that the June referendum had never been binding.

It’s safe to say that while media interest was high, even the most die-hard of Eurosceptics found the details of the Supreme Court case somewhat dull. Prominent Brexiteer Iain Duncan Smith went so far as to describe it as “like watching paint dry”. Thus, while the saga is not yet complete – the verdict is expected in January – the fact that the Supreme Court will now take a break from our screens won’t raise too many objections.

Climbing up, or climbing down?

This week saw MPs debate and approve a motion requiring the Government to publish a plan for leaving the EU before triggering Article 50. The motion passed was not the version Labour proposed, however, as the Government made its acceptance conditional on an amendment requiring the opposition to formally “respect the result of the referendum”.

Whether this represented a win for the opposition or the Government was fiercely contested in the aftermath of the debate. The Government’s earlier resistance to publishing a plan meant that Shadow Brexit Secretary Sir Keir Starmer could claim that the vote marked a “hugely significant climbdown”, but others pointed out that it was not clear how much detail the Government would now publish. Full of eye-catching phrases this week, Iain Duncan Smith said the motion gave the Government a “blank cheque” to press ahead with Brexit.

Whatever your view on this political battle, the fact that the motion is non-binding means it is of little consequence so far as the Supreme Court case is concerned. If, as many expect, the Government loses the case, it must seek further approval from Parliament before it can trigger Article 50.

BoJo baulks at cash for access

Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson refused this week to endorse suggestions by Brexit Secretary David Davis that the UK could pay contributions to the EU in exchange for access to the Single Market.

Mr Davis said last week that he would consider cash for access if that was what the best deal for British goods and services required, but Mr Johnson maintained there was no reason why payments to the EU should be “large”. Taken at face value, Mr Johnson’s comments suggest that the Government wants to gun for Single Market access without the cash. Should this prove the case, then his prediction that there are “hairy” times ahead would appear to be bang on the money.

Praying for passporting

While Mr Johnson seemed to be doing his best to create a headache for big business, Mr Davis and Philp Hammond met with financial services bosses to discuss the “opportunities offered by the UK’s decision to leave the EU”.

What the financial services sector really wants is for the Government to secure the ‘passporting’ rights which allow British firms to trade in the EU market for financial services. The Government will no doubt do its utmost to achieve a deal, but how far it is prepared to go to remains unclear. The statement Mr Hammond and Mr Davis issued after the meeting contained only the now all-too-familiar commitment to securing the “best deal” possible.

Red, White and Blue

In his first public speech on the forthcoming Brexit negotiations, EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier set out what Britain could expect in the coming talks, including a timetable of “less than 18 months” and key negotiating principles such as no “cherry picking” between the four freedoms, and no access to the Single Market without a contribution to the EU budget.

If he was hoping for the UK to respond in kind, he will have been disappointed, however. In a move that will have exasperated EU leaders, Theresa May said only: “What we should be looking for is a red, white and blue Brexit”. The comment is the latest addition to phrases such as “grey Brexit”, “hard Brexit” and “soft Brexit”, all of which reveal very little about the UK’s negotiating strategy. While we now have a new Government mantra, we are none the wiser as to the path forward.