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Cheer, but not too heartily

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Today’s High Court decision, which blocks the government’s plans to negotiate Brexit without a parliamentary vote, should be cheered.

The judgment is a victory for sovereignty (in the positive sense of having the ability to take decisions) and democracy. Irony of ironies — its biggest critics are those who have, in recent months and years, trumpeted and distorted those notions in loud voices.

But what’s not to like? British judges made a call in a British court, safeguarding the powers of British parliamentarians on a fundamental issue affecting Britain.

And it is a vote entirely within the logic — if the word “logic” can ever be applied to this farcical situation — of the decision to hold a referendum under the agreed terms.

The judgment is a victory for sovereignty and democracy

Let’s remember: this vote was consultative. Legally, it can be ignored (politically, of course, it cannot). And the vote was also one about destination, not means: it was a binary choice between staying in the EU or leaving it. There was no middle ground.

When debating the referendum bill, Parliament decided, sensibly (again, all terms are relative) not to make the decision binding, and not to make constitutional adjustments that would allow the government free reign to set the terms of any future Brexit.

The court has confirmed that Britain’s “constitutional requirements” — the phrase used in Article 50 — are to have a parliamentary vote on leaving the EU. And so, pending appeals, there will be a vote at Westminster.

But while this is an upset for the government, and a betrayal for the hardened Leavers, Remainers should not celebrate too hard.

First, there is the appeal. The verdict may be reversed by the Supreme Court.

Second, the “Brexit means Brexit” mantra — while vacuous — has become so embedded in political life that no-one dares challenge the sanctity of The Vote, however narrow it was and however many Leave voters may regret their choice.

Third, the Leader of the Opposition is Jeremy Corbyn. While he has a massively able shadow Brexit secretary in Keir Starmer, the Labour Leader has offered a pallid defence of British membership of the EU followed by a hasty call for Article 50 to be triggered, and generally little leadership on this issue.

This is not the man to lead the fight to Remain, or even to lead the fight for a sensible, measured Brexit.

So the responsibility falls on Scottish Nationalists, the tiny group of Liberal Democrats, and pro-Remain Labour MPs.

Labour Remainers are in a bind: most come from pro-Leave constituencies. Defy the 23 June vote, and they could be out on their ears come the election.

But here’s the thing: they could well be anyway. Can they reasonably stand up and ask for people to vote for them, knowing it’s a vote for Corbyn too?

So why not stand up and do what’s best for Britain — namely voting for no Brexit (unlikely as it is) or a soft Brexit?

Will Theresa May engineer an early election in reaction? Quite possibly — although we know her real thoughts on Brexit.

Labour Remainers are in a bind: so why not stand up and do what’s best for Britain ?

But Corbyn’s going nowhere fast — in both senses.

The choice is stark. Probably lose putting up a fight for something you believe in, and which is in the best interests of your country, or quite possibly lose trying to appease Leave voters, standing alongside a leader you don’t believe in?

For Labour and individual MPs, it may just be a question of degrees of defeat.

The big danger is that if there is a pre-Article 50 notification election, the pro-Leave caucus in Parliament will be bolstered. In which case we could be heading for a harder Brexit.

So cheer the verdict. It’s good for Britain and for democracy. But major obstacles lie ahead. So don’t cheer too heartily.

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