Theresa May's Brexit Challenge

Brexit stage right.

Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

Britain’s Supreme Court has given U.K. members of Parliament the power to stop Brexit. Unfortunately, it’s a power they don’t seem to want.

In its ruling, the court said that an act of Parliament is necessary to authorize Theresa May’s government to invoke Article 50, the European Union’s exit clause. MPs will almost certainly approve the enabling act and allow Brexit to proceed.

That’s because even MPs who opposed Brexit consider themselves bound by the results of last year’s referendum. They’re not: The job of parliamentarians is to exercise their best judgement, not meekly channel popular opinions they disagree with. The honorable thing for Remainers in the House of Commons would be to vote against Brexit, explain that decision to their constituents, and face the consequences at the next election.

Theresa May’s Brexit Vision

This isn’t going to happen. Conservative MPs will support May’s plans for Brexit out of partisan loyalty. The Labour Party and its unpopular leader fear a crushing defeat at the next election: They’ve said they won’t challenge voters’ distaste for the EU. A bill to trigger Article 50 could come before Parliament within days, and seems likely to sail through.

If Brexit is going ahead, the challenge for the U.K. is to minimize its costs. This requires an orderly two-part process: a transition that avoids abruptly interrupting current arrangements, followed by a longer-term deal on trade and other matters. May has made clear that the U.K. will insist on control of its borders, laws, and trade relations with non-EU countries -- meaning it cannot remain a member of Europe’s single market. But as the government emphasizes, this does not preclude close and friendly relations, serving the interests of both sides.

However, the EU is reluctant to encourage other defections by seeming to reward the U.K. for its rebellion. If May and her ministers are to negotiate effectively, dissenters inside and outside Parliament need to avoid weakening her hand by second-guessing, erecting procedural obstacles, or legislating red lines that diminish her room to maneuver.

The court has lifted one such burden, by ruling that Brexit is a decision for the Parliament of the whole U.K. -- the devolved Scottish and Northern Irish assemblies don’t have a veto. Accommodations with both will of course have to be found. And at the end of the negotiations, Parliament will have to vote on any new arrangements. In the meantime, working through these difficulties won’t be helped by further procedural delays and complications.  

Whatever happens, exiting the EU will be hard -- but methodical planning and effective negotiation will make a difference. If Parliament won’t use its power to stop Brexit, it can at least resolve to make the best of it.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.