The year that will decide our future: How the law will hold the government to account
PUBLISHED: 13:00 10 February 2018
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Campaigner Gina Miller tells TIM WALKER about her latest legal challenge to the government, and why the law still offers the best hope of holding it to account.
“The Brextremists are calling for Theresa May to go full steam ahead, but that’s actually the last thing we want now,” says Gina Miller. “We’re heading into perilous waters with no charts, not the slightest idea where we’re going, and open mutiny among the crew. That’s no time to pick up speed.”
Miller frightens the Government because they know that she can, when she chooses to, rock their rickety old boat. First, in the High Court, and then, on appeal, in the Supreme Court, she asserted parliament’s right to have its say on Article 50, the process by which the United Kingdom leaves the European Union. It was the victory of a lone but determined ordinary citizen against the highest powers in the land.
She is currently involved in further litigation with HMG after she discovered that the DUP has already started to spend some of the £1 billion “bung” that May put their way for propping up her government, even though it has still to receive parliamentary approval. Miller looks up for the fight when I meet her in her central London office this week.
There is an urgency and sense of purpose about her because she recognises this is the year that will decide what kind of country Britain is going to be. A rich man’s fantasy land – where the poor and the weak go to the wall – or a compassionate, sane society that is open to the world and looks after all of its people.
In terms of her latest case, Miller says it’s clear the government failed to follow “proper process” when it signed a confidence and supply deal with the Northern Irish party. “This is contrary to assurances that we had received from the government earlier and it is profoundly worrying. All expenditure of public funds by ministers of the crown requires parliamentary authority. Ultimately, provision of money has to be authorised in legislation duly passed by parliament. That is a fundamental rule of our constitution.”
The government’s lawyers asked for extra time to reply after Miller’s team wrote to them because, she reckons, they didn’t actually know themselves what the legal position was in relation to the DUP cash. A reply is now expected on Friday, February 9. Miller will apply immediately for a judicial review if the reply is not forthcoming or substantive, because time is now of the essence.
“All the way through this process, the government – or the shadowy forces that are driving it – have tried to push this through at breakneck speed, as they know very well if anyone is given any time to think about it, they would change their minds,” she says. “Nothing seems to matter to these people – not the law, not the civil service not the constitution and certainly not the will of the people, now it is clear from the polls that people who voted Leave are changing their minds. The Brextremists around Mrs May know very well they have pushed their mandate to the limit and they are now pushing an agenda – such as leaving the customs union – that was never signed up to by the electorate.”
Miller sees the law now as Britain’s last best hope to remain the sane, fair and compassionate society it once was, because the political system has failed the people. “There are some brave and decent people in Westminster who have tried to push back against the Brexit shambles and power grab in the Withdrawal Bill, but they are not as well organised as their opponents and there have been egos involved. I am obviously dismayed with the position of the Labour party on this, and, after being a member for many years, I have now given up on them. I am no longer a member. Mr Corbyn and Momentum want to take this country back in time, just as much as the Brextremists on the Tory benches, but they can’t see that it isn’t going to achieve for them the socialist utopia they want. The EU was actually the best bulwark we had for workers’ rights and it is, I would argue, a truly socialist movement.”
She says what is not commonly recognised at the moment is that if the government comes out of the EU negotiations with no deal, there will necessarily be no transitional period. She shudders to think what effects that will have on the economy, the value of Sterling and the jobs market, as companies rush for the exit. She believes the stock market will inevitably fall because at the moment it takes the view Britain will remain in the EU, for the transition period.
She is not, however, in the mood to give up hope and sees the law, as ever, as the most reliable safety net for ordinary citizens. She points out that the legal professor Pavlos Eleftheriadis has argued that any withdrawal agreement, and any future trade agreement, would effectively replace the existing treaties – and therefore, under the terms of the 2011 European Union act, the government would actually have no alternative but to hold a new referendum.
Would she be willing to see that was respected by the government? “Let’s see. We are not there yet. I think both of our main political parties now have their backs to the wall with rabid dogs snarling at them. The only logical way out of this mess is a people’s vote on the final options – the deal, no deal, remain and reform from within – which would serve as a ladder for both of them to climb out of a very awkward position.”
On the question of whether she will ever enter the political fray herself, Miller has, in the past, ruled it out. These days, she is more equivocal. “I never say never. There is, however, no time now for anyone to go into the House of Commons and make any real difference in relation to Brexit. There is no time, either, for any new party to be set up that will somehow make everything alright. Our best hope that sanity will prevail is, if not the existing political system we have, the law and the people making themselves heard.”
On the airwaves, Miller has seldom been allowed to talk for more than a few seconds without being interrupted by some red-faced, angry man, but, happily, the public will soon be permitted to see more of the kind of woman she really is. A documentary called I Am Gina Miller is being made that is likely to be screened in the autumn – the BBC has, needless to say, declined it – and, on August 30, at the Edinburgh Festival she launches her book Rise. The title is taken from Maya Angelou’s inspiring poem Still I Rise.
“I was adamant that both the documentary and the book should show me warts and all,” she says. “I’ve had my moments of doubt, my moments of weakness, times when I wonder is it worth it. Even now, I still receive death threats, and, I will be honest, I get frightened. I would, of course, have loved it if I had been portrayed more kindly, but there is no time for niceties – people want and need honesty right now. They are bored of all the PR spin, and so, frankly, am I.”