The europhile drive to keep the UK inside the European Economic Area (EEA) has been handed a substantial boost as it emerged ministers are unclear over the exact procedure for leaving the economic pact.
A letter by the former Brexit minister George Bridges, which was written in April but only published last week, shows confusion within Whitehall over whether or not Britain needs to formally terminate its membership.
Its contents will provide cheer to Remain campaigners who are preparing to argue in court that Mrs May does not have the legal authority to quit the EEA – possibly by triggering Article 127 – without consulting MPs.
Britain’s membership of the economic club is technically tied to a separate treaty – the EEA agreement – to its place in the wider European Union project, prompting confusion over whether the Government needs to exit both bodies independently.
The Government has already suffered one Brexit setback this year when the courts ruled in favour of a campaign group that it did need to consult MPs on the triggering of Article 50.
Mrs May passed that particular vote with ease, but since then she has lost her majority in the General Election and confidence within Remain ranks that Britain can be kept in the Single Market has grown.
If leaving the EEA were to be put to a vote, as some Labour MPs are now advocating, it is far from clear that the prime minister would be able to must enough support to win out.
In his letter Mr Bridges, who resigned in June and was replaced by leading Brexiteer Steve Banker, cast significant doubt on whether the Government needs to adopt formal legislation to exit the EEA.
He wrote: “Once we leave the EU, the EEA Agreement will no longer be relevant for the UK. It will have no practical effect. We are considering what steps, if any, might need to be taken to formally terminate the EEA Agreement as a matter of international law.”
If it emerged that the Government does need to formally trigger Britain’s exit from the treaty it would significantly boost the legal case of Remainers that such an act requires a vote in parliament.
In February two high court judges blocked a legal challenge arguing precisely that point, but made clear they were only doing so because the claims were “premature” as the Government had not yet set out its formal Brexit position.
And according to the business website M-Lex campaigner Peter Wilding, part of the double act who brought the case, is now lobbying Labour MPs to…