Rarely in recent political history has the UK’s independent judiciary been under greater attack. In the Commons this afternoon, Keir Starmer did not miss his moment. Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary and the former director of public prosecutions denounced the “appalling personal attacks” on High Court judges following the Article 50 ruling and warned: “Some of us have worked in countries where the judges do as the executive tells them. It is corrosive of democracy.” Starmer rebuked the absent Justice Secretary Liz Truss (“where is she?” MPs cried) for a defence that was “too slow and too reluctant”. With judges unable to publicly defend themselves, he emphasised, she had a “special duty” to do so.
Though Starmer confirmed that Labour would vote to trigger Article 50 if the government lost its appeal (as is likely), he demanded answers on membership of the single market and the customs union. Ministers, he said, had a duty to act not just for “the 52 per cent” but for “the 48 per cent”.
In advance of Starmer, Brexit Secretary David Davis gave little away (“all process and no substance” was his opponent’s verdict). He stated that the “legal timetable” would still allow Article 50 to be triggered in March 2017 but confirmed that legislation would be required if the government lost its appeal. As the Labour benches jeered, the civil libertarian riposted that he had done more to defend the independence of the judiciary than they ever had (a rather diversionary tactic). But though he supported the former principle, he added: “We also value the freedom of our press.” This was not the unambiguous defence that Starmer and others craved.
Davis reminded MPs that they had voted by “six to one” to hold the referendum and condemend those who sought a second vote. Though the eurosceptic Jeremy Corbyn has rejected this option, the Brexit Secretary invoked Owen Smith and Nick Clegg’s stance to tar Remainers. Even fewer MPs (save Ken Clarke) hope to block Brexit immediately but Davis still warned of opponents “thwarting the will of the people”. Starmer’s demands, he added, would force the government to enter negotiations “with all our cards face up”. What Davis will not say is that the government has far fewer to play than it would like.