David Davis has told parliament the government will publish a “straightforward” Brexit bill within days after a significant ruling by the supreme court.
The secretary of state for exiting the EU said he would respond quickly to judges’ demands to give MPs and peers a vote in parliament but warned that the “point of no return” for Brexit had already been passed.
“This does not change the fact that the UK will be leaving the European Union,” he said.
Davis said the legislation would be narrow, focusing only on the question of triggering article 50, and warned that it must not be used as a “vehicle for attempts to thwart the will of the people, or frustrate or delay the process of our exit from the European Union”.
“This will be the most straightforward bill possible to give effect to the decision of the people and respect the supreme court’s judgment,” he added, stressing that it was not about whether the UK would leave the EU, because that had been decided by the vote of more than 17 million people.
“So there can be no going back. The point of no return was passed on 23 June last year.”
Live Brexit: government will introduce article 50 bill 'within days' following supreme court ruling – live
Rolling coverage of the supreme court Brexit article 50 judgment, with reaction and analysis
Davis said government lawyers were scrutinising the long judgment, but made clear he remained confident that article 50 would be triggered by the deadline of the end of March.
“This timetable has already been supported by this house,” he said, saying the legislation would be separate to the ‘great repeal bill’.
Davis was urged by Brexiters in parliament to keep the legislation short and quick, but was also pressured by opposition figures and MPs on his own side to publish the government’s Brexit plan as a white paper in order to allow further scrutiny.
Ministers have claimed May’s Brexit speech at Lancaster House was an adequate plan.
The shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, said: “Labour accepts and respects the referendum result and will not frustrate the process. But we will be seeking to lay amendments to ensure proper scrutiny and accountability throughout the process. That starts with a white paper or plan.
“A speech is not a white paper or plan, and we need something to hold the government to account throughout the process. You can’t have a speech as the only basis for accountability for two years or more.”
Starmer was backed on the issue by Labour’s Hilary Benn, who chairs parliament’s Brexit committee, and a series of Conservative backbenchers including Ben Howlett who said: “I believe that the government should publish a white paper in order to enable my constituents to have their views heard.”
Another Tory MP, Anna Soubry, said MPs should be able to discuss not just the triggering of article 50 but also the decision to abandon the single market and free movement without debate or a vote.
“What has my honourable friend got to lose with a debate on a white paper?” she asked.
Davis – who had described May’s speech on Brexit last week as “the clearest exposition of a negotiating strategy I have seen in modern times” – said the prime minister’s address was sufficient explanation.
“I’m afraid it’s very difficult to see how you can leave the European Union and still say inside the single market, with all the commitments that go with that,” said Davis, who was supported by pro-Brexit MPs.
Julian Lewis questioned the motives of those pursuing a soft Brexit, saying they wanted to leave the EU but remain a member “in all but name”.
The former cabinet minister Iain Duncan Smith said the fact that it was a split judgment showed it was right for the government to take the case to the supreme court, but pushed for no further delays.
“May I urge him when he brings this in front of us to keep it short, to keep it simple and most of all, to keep it swift,” he said.
Aside from demands for a white paper, there were also calls for the final vote on the Brexit deal to be “meaningful”.
The Green party co-leader Caroline Lucas asked that it would be early enough in the process to allow time for a renegotiation if MPs and peers rejected it, rather than crashing out of the EU without a deal.
And the SNP’s Brexit spokesman, Stephen Gethins, asked why the government “feared parliamentary scrutiny”. He said the Tories had only one MP in Scotland, and asked Davis to “seek consent” from the Scottish parliament before legislating on areas over which it has responsibility.
The Brexit secretary argued that despite the court’s decision that the government need not get approval from the devolved administrations, he would consult key figures in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Davis also made clear that the government supported the right of the judges to come to their conclusion, after the Daily Mail argued: “Yet again, the elite show their contempt for Brexit voters.”
“We believe in and value the independence of our judiciary, the foundation upon which the rule of law was built,” he told colleagues.
That followed a statement from the justice secretary, Liz Truss, who faced criticism for not defending the appeal court justices denounced by sections of the media as “enemies of the people” after they ruled against the government.
Truss said: “Our independent judiciary is the cornerstone of the rule of law and is vital to our constitution and our freedoms. The reputation of our judiciary is unrivalled the world over, and our supreme court justices are people of integrity and impartiality.
The shadow attorney general, Shami Chakrabarti, argued that it was not enough, and that the prime minister should also speak out.
“We have to be absolutely clear: the courts have done their job. They have not made a political judgment, but just upheld a principle of parliamentary sovereignty which the Brexit supporters said their campaign was all about.
“The three judges in the [high court] were vilified and put at personal risk and that is unacceptable. We need more than a statement from Liz Truss, which is too little too late. We need something from Mrs May.”
The eagerly awaited ruling routes the protracted Brexit process through parliament, handing over to MPs and peers the authority to sanction the UK’s withdrawal.
The decision sets clear limits on the extent of the government’s executive powers. Rights embedded in the law by the 1972 European Communities Act, which took the UK into what was then the European Community, cannot be removed by the government’s prerogative powers, a majority of the justices declared.
The supreme court made clear that it was up to parliament to decide what form the legislation would take, and a very brief statute would “not undermine its momentous significance”.
Article originally posted on the Guardian