The Supreme Court will rule on the Brexit-related appeals before it during mid-January. If it takes a different view from the High Court, Theresa May will meet her deadline, and Article 50 will be moved by March 31. But the likelihood is that it will not. In such circumstances, Government will therefore need to produce a Bill. Readers will be familiar with the assertion that if such a Bill is brief it will be very difficult to amend – and this one would certainly be very short indeed (unless the court rules otherwise, as Lady Hale has suggested it might).
This claim is a misunderstanding of Parliamentary procedure. A Bill can be amended in any way that the Speaker rules to be order. He relies on the view of the clerks. ConservativeHome is told that they would see such a Bill, unsuprisingly, as being no different from any other. And while a brief bill offers fewer opportunities for amendment than a longer one, the potential to amend it is there if MPs and peers are ingenious enough.
So Ministers’ aim in producing a short bill, in these circumstances, would not be quite as sometimes claimed. They are arguably less concerned with procedure than psychology. To table a brief bill would be to throw down a gauntlet to peers and MPs. “The British people have voted for Brexit,” the move would proclaim. “Defy them and block Article 50 if you dare.”
The long and short of it is that while 2016 saw a sudden win for the forces of Brexit, 2017 may turn out to be a slow haul. If there is a Bill, and peers and MPs then dig their heels in, the Prime Minister may miss her end of March deadline for moving Article 50. But if the deadline is met, don’t expect swift progress either. One can’t have a negotiation without interlocuters to negotiate with, and elections next year may change them, not least Germany’s in the autumn. Furthermore, the unexpected usually happens. There may be new legal challenges and rulings. Or else there is a sudden denouement after all: Britain is presented with an expensive divorce bill, refuses to pay it, talks break down – and we career towards Brexit in 2019 and trade on WTO terms.
One certainty amidst the unknowns is that – whatever the Fixed Terms Parliament Act may say – the country can’t long be denied a general election if it needs it. Suppose, for example, that an amendment is tabled to an Article 50 Bill requiring the Government to seek Single Market membership as a negotiating aim. May could and should respond by making it clear that such an amendment would unacceptable to the Government.
In effect, she would be making its rejection a matter of confidence. As those with long enough memories will confirm, “Who governs Britain?” elections are risky. But it is hard to imagine the Prime Minister not returning from a snap election with a majority. Jeremy Corbyn is in a terrible place, and Labour is not recovering in Scotland. Liberal Democrats opportunities are limited. UKIP starts from a long way behind.
All in all, it is not at all difficult to see the date of Brexit getting pushed back. But it is much harder to imagine leaving the EU being prevented altogether. The way the Article 50 process works and the shape of British politics combine to make Brexit a slow train coming. The condition of Labour MPs in particular is likely to be decisive. They saw their colleagues in Scotland wiped out at a stroke in 2015. 2016 brought a big Leave vote in their midlands and northern heartlands. Donald Trump’s win has reminded them of how blue collar voters can abandon left-of-centre parties.
They are therefore unlikely to rally around continued Single Market membership – assuming they get the opportunity – if the price is leaving immigration uncontrolled (as it would be). The Brexit coming down the tracks is thus likely to be hardish. This will give those who claim that the fall-out of the referendum has been a joyless business new cause for complaint. But they are confusing joy with excitement. Only one electoral event has been greeted with mass enthusiasm in modern times: Tony Blair’s landslide victory in 1997.
We know how that story ended. So if the aftermath of the Brexit vote feels different – and it does – that is doubtless all for the best. The vote to leave the European Union, though carried on an emphatic turnout, was a close-run thing: 52 per cent played 48 per cent. But that figure is out of date in at least one sense. As Anthony Wells of YouGov writes: “it is clear from current polling that that has not been any significant shift in public opinion since the referendum, most people think the Government is obliged to deliver on the referendum result and that most people do not currently want a second referendum”.
In other words, whatever their view on whether Britain was right to vote to leave, most people believe that the referendum result must be honoured. My best sense of the national mood (and yours is as good as mine if not better) is that it is set. Quietly but emphatically, with reluctance in some quarters but acceptance in nearly all, the British people have decided that, as someone or other has put it, Brexit must mean Brexit. This determination is not to be confused with excitement. But it is likely to last for longer. And it’s not a bad state of mind in which to glance back at what has passed during this extraordinary year.