On the day the Government published its Article 50 Bill I wrote this piece setting out what seemed to be a technical flaw in the Bill.
In the following sub-paragraphs, I set the argument in its broader context. But in reading that context it will be helpful if you bear in mind the structure of Article 50, paragraph 1 of which requires a decision to withdraw in accordance with our constitutional requirements; and paragraph 2 of which requires notification of that decision:
(1) what the Bill – now of course an Act – does do is authorise the Prime Minister to notify the EU that we intend to leave the EU;
(2) what it does not do is make a decision that we should leave the EU;
(3) you search for such a decision in vain. Even if you extend your search beyond the Act. Despite what David Davis asserted in debates in Parliament, the Supreme Court was very clear that the Referendum was not legally a decision to withdraw. In private correspondence, the Brexit Secretary has pointed to facets of the broader political context but he has not pointed to any decision;
(4) the reason the Referendum was not a decision to withdraw is because, in enacting it, Parliament chose to make it advisory;
(5) the Supreme Court judgments do not demonstrate a laser-like focus on whether they are addressing the Article 50.1 limb (the decision to withdraw) or the Article 50.2 limb (the notification of that decision). The (likely) reason for this is that the Claimants decided – and eventually the Government agreed – that for the purposes of the point before the Supreme Court the difference between the two was only formal;
(6) however, the structure of Article 50 is quite clear: it is only the decision that need be made in accordance with our constitutional requirements. There are no formalities governing the notice itself – it could be made via a tweet; and
(7) remember point (6) and the Supreme Court judgments are brought into some focus. In addressing, as they do, what our constitution requires they must (primarily) be concerned with the decision rather than its notification.
This sequence of reasoning has animated a number of campaigners. Might it have as a consequence that, legally speaking, the Article 50 clock has yet to start because we have yet to decide to leave. And that what was notified to Donald Tusk was a nothing? So that Parliament would have now to choose whether we want to leave the EU?
I’ve sat apart from those discussions for various reasons. One of them was that I hadn’t understood why the Government did things in this way? Why did it not enact a decision? Why no section 1(1) of the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Act 2017 saying: “The United Kingdom intends to withdraw from the European Union”?
It is inconceivable to me that this omission was accidental. The short Act is drafted with some care. By way of simple illustration I spent some time with a leading Constitutional Law QC examining whether it was effective to notify a decision to withdraw the United Kingdom from Euratom before concluding that, despite initial appearances, it was.
But here’s a speculation and one – I think – that has the ring of truth.
If you were determined to leave the EU you would not want the decision to do so to be sourced in an Act of Parliament. After all, a thing that is done by MPs can be undone by MPs. But source that decision in the Referendum, source it in ‘the will of the people’, and it cannot be undone otherwise than by the people whose future will you could then choose to mute. And the fact that, legally, in the Referendum the people had not decided to leave but simply to advise Parliament, well, that would be a nuance too far for Parliament. It would lack the will or the courage or the perspicacity to seek to amend the Bill to introduce a decision to leave.
It takes no great effort for me to imagine a conversation between David Davis and James Eadie QC (First Treasury Counsel and the Government’s key legal advisor). Davis says that for his own reasons he wants the Act not to make the decision to leave the EU. Eadie responds by observing that to do so would leave the Act with a technical flaw. Davis says that, surely, no judge would dare declare the withdrawal notification a nullity. Surely?
And what does Eadie respond? Well, someone will have to go to court to find out.