Supreme Court rules Parliament must vote to trigger Brexit

Ms Miller (centre), the lead claimant in the case to have Britain’s lawmakers vote on triggering the process of leaving the European Union, delivering a statement outside the Supreme Court in central London yesterday. The investment fund manager sa
Ms Miller (centre), the lead claimant in the case to have Britain’s lawmakers vote on triggering the process of leaving the European Union, delivering a statement outside the Supreme Court in central London yesterday. The investment fund manager said that she had been shocked by the personal abuse she had received.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

May can't use executive powers, but approval of UK's devolved assemblies not needed

LONDON • The UK Supreme Court has ruled that Prime Minister Theresa May must give Parliament a vote before she can formally start Britain's exit from the European Union (EU), giving lawmakers who oppose her Brexit plans a chance to amend or hinder them.

By a majority of eight to three, the Supreme Court decision yesterday said Mrs May could not use executive powers known as "royal prerogative"to invoke Article 50 of the EU's Lisbon Treaty and begin two years of divorce talks.

"The Supreme Court today rules that the government cannot trigger Article 50 without an Act of Parliament authorising it to do so," said Supreme Court president David Neuberger.

But the judges did remove one major potential obstacle, saying Mrs May did not need the approval of the UK's devolved assemblies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland before triggering Brexit.

Mrs May has said she intends to invoke Article 50 before the end of March, but the ruling means she must first bring legislation before Parliament and get it passed before she can go ahead.

The Secretary of State for Exiting the EU, Mr David Davis, told Parliament a few hours after the court's ruling that a Bill to trigger Article 50 will be put forward shortly with the aim of meeting Mrs May's March deadline. That opens up the Brexit process to scrutiny from lawmakers, the majority of whom had wanted to stay in the EU.


The British people voted to leave the EU, and the government will deliver on their verdict - triggering Article 50, as planned, by the end of March. Today's ruling does nothing to change that.

MRS THERESA MAY, British Prime Minister.


Labour will seek to amend the Article 50 Bill to prevent the Conservatives using Brexit to turn Britain into a bargain-basement tax haven.

SPOKESMAN FOR MR JEREMY CORBYN, opposition Labour Party leader.


The Liberal Democrats are clear - we demand a vote of the people on the final deal and without that, we will not vote for Article 50.

MR TIM FARRON, leader of Liberal Democrats.


This ruling today means that the Members of Parliament we have elected will rightfully have the opportunity to bring their invaluable experience and expertise to bear in helping the government select the best course in the forthcoming Brexit negotiations - negotiations that will frame our place in the world and all our destinies to come.

MS GINA MILLER, lead claimant in case for Parliament to approve Brexit.


It is becoming clearer by the day that Scotland's voice is simply not being heard or listened to within the UK. The claims about Scotland being an equal partner are being exposed as nothing more than empty rhetoric.

MS NICOLA STURGEON, First Minister of Scotland.

Some investors and those who backed the "Remain" campaign hope that lawmakers will force Mrs May to seek a deal which prioritises access to the European single market of 500 million people, or even block Brexit altogether.

However, the main opposition Labour Party said it would not block Brexit, although it would try to amend the legislation.

"Labour will seek to build in the principles of full, tariff-free access to the single market and maintenance of workers' rights and social and environmental protections," said party leader Jeremy Corbyn.

Mrs May said the decision did nothing to change the path of Brexit.

"The British people voted to leave the EU and the government will deliver on their verdict - triggering Article 50, as planned, by the end of March," her spokesman said.

Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, a leading Brexit advocate during the referendum campaign, said on Twitter: "Supreme Court has spoken. Now Parliament must deliver will of the people - we will trigger A50 by the end of March. Forward we go!"

Last week, Mrs May set out her hopes for negotiations with the EU, promising a clean break with the world's largest trading bloc as part of a 12-point plan to focus on global free trade deals, setting a course for a so-called "hard Brexit".

Yesterday's decision is the result of a government appeal against a High Court ruling in November that Mrs May should seek the approval of lawmakers before formally starting Britain's withdrawal from the EU.

The lead claimant in the case taken to the High Court last year was 51-year-old investment fund manager Gina Miller, whose lawyer said yesterday that she voted for Brexit.

"No prime minister, no government can expect to be unanswerable or unchallenged," Ms Miller said yesterday. "Today's decision has created legal certainty based on our democratic process."

Last November's decision in her favour attracted protests, as well as death threats and racist taunts .

"I have been shocked by the levels of personal abuse I have received from many quarters," she said outside the court.


What comes next?

Q Will Parliament block Article 50?

A Almost certainly not. Last June's referendum result makes it hard for lawmakers to vote against leaving. Most of Mrs May's Conservative Party now support Brexit, and the opposition Labour Party has said it will not block Article 50 - though individual lawmakers may rebel.

The unelected House of Lords will be reluctant to defy the will of the people.

The government said yesterday it will present draft legislation "within days" seeking Parliament's approval to trigger Britain's divorce with the European Union.

Q How long could the process take?

In theory, Bills can complete the entire parliamentary process in a single day. But that's only happened in emergencies and where there's cross-party agreement. It more usually takes weeks - or months.

Q What can Brexit opponents do?

They can put roadblocks in the government's way, adding amendments to the legislation. Most members campaigned against Brexit, and many have reservations about the flavour of the divorce that Mrs May is going for.

Labour will seek to keep "full, tariff-free access to the single market".

The Scottish National Party, with 54 MPs, has promised to submit 50 "serious and substantive" amendments. Plaid Cymru of Wales, with three MPs, has also said it will try to amend the Bill. The Liberal Democrats, with nine MPs, said they will oppose it unless it guarantees a referendum on the eventual outcome of the Brexit negotiations. The sole Green Party lawmaker said she will oppose the Bill. 


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 25, 2017, with the headline 'Supreme Court rules Parliament must vote to trigger Brexit'. Print Edition | Subscribe