Court ruling that U.K. requires Parliament vote to leave EU could lead to a ‘softer’ Brexit

Lawyer David Greene reads a statement Thursday outside Britain's High Court about the ruling that the Brexit cannot be triggered without a vote by Parliament.
Lawyer David Greene reads a statement Thursday outside Britain’s High Court about the ruling that the Brexit cannot be triggered without a vote by Parliament.
(Niklas Halle’n / AFP/Getty Images)

Britain’s path to leaving the European Union took a huge leap into the unknown Thursday when the High Court ruled that withdrawing from the 28-member bloc required a parliamentary vote.

The judgment instantly raised doubts about the viability of Prime Minister Theresa May’s desire to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the process that formally begins the two-year exit negotiation process, by the end of March.

It also swiftly raised more questions than it could answer about what the so-called Brexit would now look like, when it might happen, and even if it would happen.


“I think we could be at the beginning, with this ruling, of a process where there is a deliberate willful attempt by our political class to betray 17.4 million voters,” said UKIP leader Nigel Farage, who built his entire political career on campaigning for Britain to leave the EU.

The legal challenge was brought by several claimants, including investment fund manager Gina Miller and hairdresser Deir Dos Santos, who argued that leaving the EU could remove key rights, such as the free movement of people, which cannot happen without the approval of parliament.

The government announced it would be appealing the decision to the Supreme Court, the final court of appeal in Britain for civil cases, and time had already been cleared in the schedule for a hearing in early December.

That in and of itself is unusual, but a sign of how crucial it is for the country’s future economic and political stability to solve the Brexit question swiftly.

Analysts and legal experts did not expect Thursday’s ruling to totally derail the results of the June 23 referendum, which saw 52% (17.4 million) of the country choose to leave the European Union compared to 48% (16.1 million) who voted to remain.


Brexit, they feel, is still more than likely to happen. But it could feasibly delay the government’s desired timetable as well as the manner in which those negotiations are conducted, said Andrew Hood, senior director at law firm Dechert LLP and former legal adviser to ex-Prime Minister David Cameron.

“I don’t think the endgame is around will it be ‘leave’ at all, but around what impact will it have on timing and the shape of the negotiations,” he said. “Could this help lead to a softer Brexit than a harder Brexit?”

The issue of soft versus hard Brexit has become a crucial source of contention as the government attempts to forge ahead with plans to extricate Britain after more than four decades of membership in the EU and its predecessors.

When May said in October that the government was willing to sacrifice full access to the European single market if it meant total control over immigration, alarm bells rang and many argued there are a myriad of other “softer,” more compromised negotiating positions where some open trade deals could be retained.

Opponents also stressed that while a majority of voters did choose to leave the EU, no one voted on what that withdrawal would look like and it was therefore unconstitutional for the government to impose those terms on the country without seeking Parliament’s approval.

The government had already agreed to engage in debates on the terms of Brexit, but Thursday’s ruling means a law will most likely need to be introduced and then passed by both the House of Commons and the House of Lords, before Article 50 can even be invoked.


Even though most lawmakers were in favor of remaining in the EU — and the Conservative Party has only a slim majority, with 326 seats out of 650 — political experts said that did not mean the bill, and Brexit along with it, would be defeated.

“MPs are going to be sensitive to what their constituents are thinking,” said Eric Kaufmann, a professor of politics at Birkbeck College, University of London, adding that the 52% of the electorate who voted to leave converted into a significant amount of parliamentary seats.

But, he said, the longer, drawn-out process could change the type of deal the country ends up with.

“[This ruling] opens up scope for softer Brexit because there will have to be discussions about the reasons for the policies the government is pursuing. If the economy gets worse, there is now a forum for those concerns to be vented.”

The pound sterling reacted positively to the news that Parliament would have to vote in order to trigger Brexit, rising 1.1% to $1.2430 after a prolonged slump following the referendum result.

Questions were also raised on Thursday about an entirely different way forward: May could choose to trigger a snap election in a bid to ensure she has enough support to push Brexit through.


That idea was quashed by her spokeswoman, who said the prime minister still believes there should not be an election until 2020.

She also stressed that the government still intends to stick to its deadline of the end of March for evoking Article 50 and President of the EU Commission Jean-Claude Junker would be informed of that during a phone call he is scheduled to have with May on Friday.

That would see Britain leaving the EU by summer 2019.

But exactly how that timetable would be enforced right now with so many hurdles to overcome is anyone’s guess.

“Between now and Christmas there’s going to be even more uncertainty added to a pretty big pot of uncertainty around Brexit anyway,” Hood said.

Boyle is a special correspondent



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2:30 p.m.: This article has been updated throughout with additional context and analysis.

12:15 p.m.: This article has been updated throughout with Times reporting.

This article was originally posted at 4:20 a.m.