Yesterday a High Court Ruling suggested that the Conservative government would not be able to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty without the support of the Parliament, a Ruling that will be challenged by the government in the Supreme Court next month. This effectively means that Parliament’s MPs will have to vote on Article 50 being triggered. This ruling does raise many questions regarding Brexit. Though it may have sought to clarify a position of Brexit in a legal sense, it has reopened the door for a debate on a political level. Despite May suggesting that this would not derail the timetable to trigger Article 50 by March 2017.
The ruling made will bring the question of being part of the Community back into the political domain – something the referendum in June was meant to resolve. Both Conservatives and Labour historically have been divided on their stances on Europe, and both parties have rarely been able to keep their MPs in line on the European policy they will pursue. For the Conservatives, there are many historic examples of the party voting out of line with the party’s policy. This is seen through the Maastricht rebels in 1993, when Conservative MPs prevented the Maastricht Treaty from being implemented. Or in the eventual ousting of Thatcher which was also over divisions on Europe, which was hastened by the resignation of the then Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe. Howe had resigned due to a disagreement of Thatcher’s European policy. Moreover, he had cited that Thatcher was undermining the European Monetary Union (EMU). This is of course different in the context of Brexit, however it can be seen from those two examples that opposition in the Conservative Party can and has arisen from both pro-European and anti-European sides, as well as backbenches to ministers. May will have to ensure Conservative MPs vote in favour of triggering Article 50 in a House of Commons vote. Moreover, the idea of Collective Responsibility in Cabinet on such a divisive issue will be difficult to maintain. Collective Responsibility in Cabinet means, that the Cabinet Ministers must collectively agree on a decision. This has been suspended in the past, as Cameron did with the referendum. Thus May’s Cabinet consisting of ‘Remainers’ and ‘Leavers’, could mean that Ministers have the potential to ‘go native’ on Brexit in light of the Court’s Ruling. There will also be inevitable pressure on May by her backbench MPs.
The Labour Party have also been in the past divided bitterly on the topic of Europe – as was seen in the weeks following the referendum. From a historical perspective this can be seen in the 1975 referendum that was pledged by Harold Wilson, the Prime Minister at the time. Labour MPs that opposed the Community even made cross-party alliances such as the Powell-Benn alliance (Enoch Powell Conservative, and Tony Benn Labour MP). The referendum then similar to the one now was a tool to get a definitive answer on the European question that would put to rest the question for the party. Thus the referendum was a tool to manage the party. Divisions on Europe culminated for the Labour Party when Labour MPs Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Shirley Williams, and Bill Rodgers created their own political party in 1981, the Social Democratic Party (SDP). They had made the decision as they felt the Labour Party was moving into an increasingly Euroscepctics position which they disagreed with. The SDP creation was extremely damaging to the Labour Party as it split the Labour vote. This meant that the 1983 and 1987 general elections were won by the Conservative Party. It took from 1987 to 1997 for Labour to eventually recover and come into power under Tony Blair. In the present, Jeremy Corbyn has stated that any decision on Brexit should be scrutinized by Parliament. He argued that there should be transparency over Brexit matters. The Labour Party similarly will be divided on the matter if a vote is required in Parliament over Brexit.
The decision by the High Court, coupled with a slender majority that the Conservatives hold could lead for May to call for an early election. An early election could also potentially see a Liberal Democrats resurgence as Europe dominates events. It should be noted that out of the three parties, the Liberals have consistently remained pro-European. Regardless of the prospect of another election, the referendum being a tool for party management has been ineffective due to the Ruling. Thus the High Court Ruling has reopened the door for political debate on Brexit.