Brexit battle reaches High Court in challenge to PM May

British premier accused of 'power grab' in bid to trigger EU exit without Parliament vote

LONDON • The battle over Brexit has reached the High Court in a legal challenge to British premier Theresa May's right to start negotiations to leave the European Union (EU) without a vote in Parliament.

The move could delay Brexit if successful and set up an unprecedented constitutional face-off between the courts and the government. It was launched after the June referendum, in which 52 per cent of Britons voted for Brexit.

Protesters for and against the legal action rallied outside the court in London yesterday as lawyers and claimants arrived for the first day of a three-day hearing. A man holding a blue EU flag shouted "Parliament must vote!", while another distributed leaflets urging people to "Uphold the Brexit vote".

The case seeks to challenge Mrs May's assertion that she has the right to trigger Article 50 of the EU's Lisbon Treaty, which would spark two years of negotiations on Britain's departure from the bloc.

The government says it has "royal prerogative" - a type of executive privilege - to negotiate Brexit without a legally binding parliamentary vote.

But those behind the legal challenge - including an investment fund manager, a hairdresser and an expatriate living in France - argue that such a process cannot begin without a law passed by Parliament.

Ms Gina Miller, co-founder of an investment fund, wants Parliament to legislate on Brexit terms before triggering Article 50. "This is not about whether we should stay or leave - this is actually about how we leave," she said on Wednesday. "If we bypass or we set a precedent... that a prime minister can decide what rights we have and what rights we don't, then basically we go back to being a dictatorship and roll back democracy 400 years."

In court, lawyers seeking to force the parliamentary vote told a panel of three senior judges that Mrs May's bid to trigger Brexit on her own amounts to an unconstitutional power grab. Mr David Pannick, who represents Ms Miller, said Mrs May's decision to trigger Article 50 without a vote was a reckless political move that "will defeat rights that have been conferred by Parliament". "None of the constitutional developments that have occurred come close to affecting the basic truth that Parliament is sovereign."

Although Mrs May has accused the claimants of trying to "subvert" the result of the referendum, she signalled on Wednesday she would let Parliament scrutinise her Brexit plan before starting the formal EU exit process. But she stopped short of agreeing to a vote for MPs on her plan before the government triggers Article 50.

Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said a draft Bill for an independence referendum will be published in the Scottish Parliament next week as a last resort if it cannot keep close EU ties post-Brexit.

She told delegates yesterday at her Scottish National Party's annual conference: "I am determined that Scotland will have the ability to reconsider the question of independence and to do so before the UK leaves the EU if that is necessary to protect our country's interest."

In the Brexit referendum, Scotland voted with 62 per cent in favour of remaining part of the EU.

"Scotland didn't choose to be in this situation. Your party put us here. In 2014, you told us Scotland was an equal partner in the UK. The moment has come to prove it," Ms Sturgeon said, addressing Mrs May.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 14, 2016, with the headline 'Brexit battle reaches High Court in challenge to PM May'. Print Edition | Subscribe