If Brexit is about restoring parliamentary sovereignty, why not consult Parliament now before triggering Article 50?

If Brexit is about restoring parliamentary sovereignty, why not consult Parliament now before triggering Article 50?

I worked in the Conservative Research Department (CRD) in 1969 and 1970.

The CRD, under its then Director, Brendon Sewill, was heavily involved in the preparation of the manifesto for the June 1970 election. It was clearly a useful and convincing document because the Conservatives achieved a narrow victory which surprised commentators on all sides though not, apparently, the new Prime Minister, Edward Heath.

In the light of the current heated debate over Parliament’s role in Brexit, it is worth looking back at the actual language of the manifesto which set out the way in which a new Conservative government would negotiate Britain’s adhesion to the EEC (as it then was).

This is what it said:

A Stronger Britain in The World
If we can negotiate the right terms, we believe that it would be in the long-term interest of the British people for Britain to join the European Economic Community, and that it would make a major contribution to both the prosperity and the security of our country. The opportunities are immense. Economic growth and a higher standard of living would result from having a larger market. But we must also recognise the obstacles. There would be short-term disadvantages in Britain going into the European Economic Community which must be weighed against the long-term benefits. Obviously there is a price we would not be prepared to pay. Only when we negotiate will it be possible to determine whether the balance is a fair one, and in the interests of Britain.

Our sole commitment is to negotiate; no more, no less. As the negotiations proceed we will report regularly through Parliament to the country. A Conservative Government would not be prepared to recommend to Parliament, nor would Members of Parliament approve, a settlement which was unequal or unfair. In making this judgement, Ministers and Members will listen to the views of their constituents and have in mind, as is natural and legitimate, primarily the effect of entry upon the standard of living of the individual citizens whom they represent.

If the word ‘join’ is simply replaced by ‘leave’,  the wording of the 1970 manifesto could, it seems to me, provide an almost perfect template for the course we should now follow, except of course for one enormous problem and that is the actual language of Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty.

Let us assume our negotiators conclude an agreement with our continental partners within the two-year deadline laid down under Article 50 (or under some longer period if an extension to the deadline has been unanimously agreed by the EU Council). Let us assume that the Government recommends that agreement to Parliament, as the Heath Government did in 1972 with the European Communities Bill.

If Parliament agrees, then our departure from the EU is presumably assured under the terms negotiated. But if agreement is not reached or if Parliament does not approve the deal, once the deadline laid down in Article 50 has been passed, Britain has to leave anyway. To that extent, Parliament’s vote at the end – rather than at the beginning – of the process will be irrelevant.

Unlike the situation which obtained at the beginning of the 1970s, once Article 50 has been triggered, the status quo (in this case ‘in’ rather than ‘out’) is not an option.

Realistically, if Parliament is to have a say in this matter at all, its voice should be heard now, before the Article 50 non-recallable intercontinental ballistic missile has actually been fired.

It may indeed be legally possible for the Government to trigger Article 50 without consulting Parliament. We will hear the views of the Supreme Court on this matter in due course. But is it wise? Is this what the Brexiteers had in mind when they spoke of ‘restoring parliamentary sovereignty’?

March 2017 is only weeks away. Given the overwhelming importance of the decision the Government is about to take in triggering Article 50, isn’t there a strong case for consulting Parliament now?

In any case, with the current Conservative lead in the polls, would opposition parties in the House of Commons actually vote against a motion to trigger Article 50, and run the risk of an early general election?