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Government loses battle to trigger Article 50 without consulting Parliament

The ruling has been cheered by Remain supporters. 

MPs campaigning against a hard Brexit are cheering a High Court ruling that the government cannot trigger Article 50 without parliamentary permission. 

Theresa May's government, formed in the aftermath of the Brexit vote, claimed it could trigger Article 50 without parliamentary approval, through the use of a Royal Prerogative. Its argument hinged on the 1972 European Communities Act, which it said gave provision for acting in this manner. 

But the court said it did not accept the argument put forward by the government, and found "nothing" in the text of the 1972 Act to support it.

Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron said: “Given the strict two year timetable of exiting the EU once Article 50 is triggered, it is critical that the government now lay out their negotiating to Parliament, before such a vote is held."

Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit secretary, said: “Labour accepts and respects the referendum result and recognises that we are leaving the EU. But the role of Parliament in deciding how we exit is vital.

"The court made clear today that the Prime Minister was wrong to attempt to sideline the House of Commons and public scrutiny. The government should now urgently review its approach."

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said: "Labour respects the decision of the British people to leave the European Union. But there must be transparency and accountability to Parliament on the terms of Brexit."

The pound has increased in value against the dollar in the wake of the judgement. It may reflect the fact many Remain voters hope Parliament will be able to obstruct a hard Brexit and broker a deal that includes some form of access to the single market, and a more flexible approach to free movement. The vast majority of MPs backed Remain, including a slim majority of Conservatives. 

Nicky Morgan, a Tory MP strongly backing Remain, tweeted: "Right that Parliament should vote on legislation to trigger Article 50. Sovereignty regained from EU should go to sovereign UK Parliament."

Her fellow Tory Remainer, Anna Soubry, tweeted that the government should accept the court's ruling.

And in a tongue-in-cheek reference to May's comment that "Brexit means Brexit", shadow Home secretary Diane Abbott tweeted: "Parliamentary sovereignty means parliamentary sovereignty."

First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, who is lobbying for a soft Brexit, tweeted that the judgement was "significant indeed". 

The case was brought by Gina Miller, a wealth manager, alongside a crowd-funded group called the People's Challenge, led by Grahame Pigney, a semi-retired trade unionist.

Pigney told The Staggers he simply believed Parliament should be sovereign. After the verdict, he said he was ready to fight any appeal by the government "with the same vigour and commitment". 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

Photo: Getty
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Cambridge Analytica and the digital war in Africa

Across the continent, UK expertise is being deployed online to sway elections and target dissidents.

Cambridge Analytica, the British political consultancy caught up in a huge scandal over its use of Facebook data, has boasted that they ran the successful campaigns of President Uhuru Kenyatta in the 2013 and 2017 Kenyan elections. In a secretly filmed video, Mark Turnbull, a managing director for Cambridge Analytica and sister company SCL Elections, told a Channel 4 News’ undercover investigative reporting team that his firm secretly stage-managed Kenyatta’s hotly contested campaigns.

“We have rebranded the entire party twice, written the manifesto, done research, analysis, messaging. I think we wrote all the speeches and we staged the whole thing – so just about every element of this candidate,” Turnbull said of his firm’s work for Kenyatta’s party.

Cambridge Analytica boasts of manipulating voters’ deepest fears and worries. Last year’s Kenyan election was dogged by vicious online propaganda targeting opposition leader Raila Odinga, with images and films playing on people’s concerns about everything from terrorism to spiralling disease. No-one knows who produced the material. Cambridge Analytica denies involvement with these toxic videos – a claim that is hard to square with the company’s boast that they “staged the whole thing.” 

In any event, Kenyatta came to power in 2013 and won a second and final term last August, defeating Odinga by 1.4 million votes.

The work of this British company is only the tip of the iceberg. Another company, the public relations firm, Bell Pottinger, has apologised for stirring up racial hostility in South Africa on behalf of former President Jacob Zuma’s alleged financiers – the Gupta family. Bell Pottinger has since gone out of business.

Some electoral manipulation has been home grown. During the 2016 South African municipal elections the African National Congress established its own media manipulations operation.

Called the “war room” it was the ANC’s own “black ops” centre. The operation ranged from producing fake posters, apparently on behalf of opposition parties, to establishing 200 fake social media “influencers”. The team launched a news site, The New South African, which claimed to be a “platform for new voices offering a different perspective of South Africa”. The propaganda branded opposition parties as vehicles for the rich and not caring for the poor.

While the ANC denied any involvement, the matter became public when the public relations consultant hired by the party went to court for the non-payment of her bill. Among the court papers was an agreement between the claimant and the ANC general manager, Ignatius Jacobs. According to the email, the war room “will require input from the GM [ANC general manager Jacobs] and Cde Nkadimeng [an ANC linked businessman] on a daily basis. The ANC must appoint a political champion who has access to approval, as this is one of the key objectives of the war room.”

Such home-grown digital dirty wars appear to be the exception, rather than the rule, in the rest of Africa. Most activities are run by foreign firms.

Ethiopia, which is now in a political ferment, has turned to an Israeli software company to attack opponents of the government. A Canadian research group, Citizens Lab, reported that Ethiopian dissidents in the US, UK, and other countries were targeted with emails containing sophisticated commercial spyware posing as Adobe Flash updates and PDF plugins.

Citizens Lab says it identified the spyware as a product known as “PC Surveillance System (PSS)”. This is a described as a “commercial spyware product offered by Cyberbit —  an Israel-based cyber security company— and marketed to intelligence and law enforcement agencies.”

This is not the first time Ethiopia has been accused of turning to foreign companies for its cyber-operations. According to Human Rights Watch, this is at least the third spyware vendor that Ethiopia has used to target dissidents, journalists and activists since 2013.

Much of the early surveillance work was reportedly carried out by the Chinese telecom giant, ZTE. More recently it has turned for more advanced surveillance technology from British, German and Italian companies. “Ethiopia appears to have acquired and used United Kingdom and Germany-based Gamma International’s FinFisher and Italy-based Hacking Team’s Remote Control System,” wrote Human Rights Watch in 2014.

Britain’s international development ministry – DFID – boasts that it not only supports good governance but provides funding to back it up. In 2017 the good governance programme had £20 million at its disposal, with an aim is to “help countries as they carry out political and economic reforms.” Perhaps the government should direct some of this funding to investigate just what British companies are up to in Africa, and the wider developing world.

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. He is the author of Understanding Eritrea and, with Paul Holden, the author of Who Rules South Africa?