Ministers must clarify legal position on Article 50 revocability after Callanan u-turn

MPs have today called on the Government to make clear the legal position on the revocability of Article 50, after a Brexit Minister was forced to clarify comments made in the House of Lords last week where he claimed that the Government’s notification of Article 50 makes Brexit irreversible. 

Lord Callanan, a Minister in the Department for Exiting the European Union, said in the House of Lords a week ago that he could “confirm” that the Supreme Court has judged Article 50 to be irreversible. However, he has now been forced to clarify is comments for a second time, after an earlier clarification last Thursday was judged to be insufficient.

In the House of Lords today, Lord Callanan admitted that the Supreme Court did not rule on the revocability of Article 50 in its judgment in a legal case brought by Gina Miller.

Now Labour MPs Chuka Umunna and Chris Leslie, both leading supporters of Open Britain, are calling for the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union to clarify the Government’s position on the revocability of Article 50.

Lord Kerr, the former diplomat who was the key author of Article 50, said in a speech earlier this month that the British Government could withdrawal its letter and stop the process if it wanted. His interpretation has been supported by legal experts such as Jean-Claude Piris, who served as Legal Counsel to the European Council.

Commenting, Chuka Umunna MP, leading supporter of Open Britain, said:

“It speaks volumes about the mess this Government are in that a Minister has been forced to admit that he got it completely wrong when he asserted from the Despatch Box in the House of Lords that Article 50 is irrevocable.

“As legal experts and the architect of Article 50 himself have said, Theresa May’s letter signalled only the UK’s intention to withdraw from the EU. Intentions can change, and it is perfectly within the Government’s power to call a halt to or pause this process and withdraw the letter if they want to.

“The Government needs to come clean about the legal advice it has received – and is refusing to publish – on whether or not Article 50 can be withdrawn. The British people should know that they have a choice at the end of the Brexit negotiations as new facts emerge – the process is not inevitable. 

“It would be helpful if a Minister followed Lord Callanan and made the same statement in the House of Commons to make that clear to Parliament and the public.”

Commenting, Chris Leslie MP, leading supporter of Open Britain, said:

“This is relevant because we’re about to start the EU Withdrawal Bill committee stage proceeding tomorrow, and it’s very important people realise that Article 50 can be revoked. Will a Minister come and clarify this in the House of Commons?”


Notes to editors:

Transcript of Lord Callanan’s comments in the House of Lords on 13th November 2017:

Viscount Ridley: My Lords, further to what my noble friend said about fixing the date of withdrawal and to what the noble Lord, Lord Garel-Jones, said, can he confirm that the judgment of the Supreme Court in the case brought by Gina Miller confirms in precise terms that Article 50 is irreversible, in contrast to what the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, has said? 

Lord CallananI can confirm that. It is also stated by the European Commission that Article 50, once invoked, is irrevocable unless there is political agreement on it. 

Lord Elstyn-Morgan: My Lords, does the Minister agree that the notice given in March this year in relation to Article 50 was not a notice of withdrawal but a notice of intention to withdraw? Does he appreciate that our distinguished colleague, the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, and the vast mass of distinguished legal authority are of the opinion, therefore, that such a notice can be withdrawn unilaterally? Will the Government, especially in the light of today’s Statement, no longer hide behind any artifice to try to delude the public into believing that they have no view on that matter? Will they come clean and state that they accept totally that that is the situation?

Lord CallananMy Lords, no, I will not confirm that, because it has been stated by legal opinion on this side of the water and in the EU that Article 50 is not revocable. It all flies in the face of the results of the referendum. It is fine for Members of this House to say that we should just ignore the result, but 17.4 million people voted to leave the European Union in one of the largest democratic exercises that we have ever held. If we think that democracy is at a low ebb in this country, let us imagine what would happen if we ignored what happened in that referendum. 


Transcript of Lord Callanan’s correction in the House of Lords on 16th November 2017:

Lord Callanan: “My Lords, I am happy to confirm that, as a matter of firm policy, our notification of Article 50 will not be withdrawn. This was the position the Government put forward—Perhaps noble Lords could wait for the rest of the answer, please. This was the position that the Government put forward in the Supreme Court case. The Supreme Court proceeded on this basis and decided that it was not necessary for it to consider the legal position on this specific point any further. We have laid a letter in the Library of the House to the same effect.”


Theresa May endorsed the argument that the Supreme Court ruled on the revocability of Article 50 in the House of Commons last month:

Ben Bradshaw: Is it the Prime Minister’s understanding that, if necessary, it is possible to halt the article 50 process?

Theresa MayThe position was made clear in a case that went through the Supreme Court in relation to Article 50. The Government have made it clear that we have no intention of revoking that. We will be delivering on the vote of the British people.

Chris Leslie: May I press the Prime Minister to clarify her answer to my right hon. Friend Mr Bradshaw? He was not asking about Government policy: he was asking a straightforward question. Have the Government have received any legal advice that the Article 50 notice can be revoked?

Theresa May: “I said to Mr Bradshaw that the position in relation to the revocation of Article 50 was addressed by the Supreme Court in a case that went before it. It was very clear about that. We were clear as a Government that we were not revoking and it was clear in its consideration of the case of no revocation of Article 50. 

Pat McFadden: Further to the question asked by my hon. Friend Mr Leslie, which—with respect to the Prime Minister—was not about the Gina Miller case but about Government legal advice, can she tell the House whether the Government have received legal advice that Article 50 is revocable?

Theresa May: I have to say to the right hon. Gentleman—perhaps I should have said this initially to the right hon. Member for Exeter—that of course we do not comment on legal advice that has been received, but the position was very clear in the case that he mentioned. The Supreme Court was clear that it operated on the basis that Article 50 would not be revoked. 

Source: House of Commons, 9th October 2017 

Jean-Claude Piris said today at an event organised by the Centre for European Reform think tank that it is “legally possible” for the UK Government to withdraw its Article 50 letter having already invoked it.

Lord Kerr’s speech, organised by Open Britain, is here: