U.K. Tory Lawmaker Phillips Quits Over May’s Brexit Handling

  • Cites ‘irreconcilable policy differences’ with May government
  • Resignation means by-election in safe Conservative seat

U.K. Supreme Court and the Article 50 Debate

Stephen Phillips, a lawmaker from Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservative Party, said he is resigning his seat with immediate effect over “irreconcilable policy differences with the current government.”

Phillips, a lawyer who works as a judge as well as sitting in the House of Commons, campaigned for Brexit, but protested at May’s attempt to implement it without going through Parliament. 

In a blow to May, judges ruled on Thursday that parliamentary approval is needed to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the formal process for leaving the EU. The government will appeal the decision at the Supreme Court next month.

“It has been a great honor to serve the people of Sleaford and North Hykeham for the last six years, but it has become clear to me over the last few months that my growing and very significant policy differences with the current government mean that I am unable properly to represent the people who elected me,” Phillips said in an e-mailed statement.

May now faces another by-election, though the seat is a safe Tory one: Phillips won 56 percent of the vote in 2015, followed by Labour on 17 percent. The anti-EU U.K. Independence Party came third, with 16 percent of the vote. Phillips’s resignation reduces May’s already-slim majority until he’s replaced, but gives her the opportunity to push for a Tory candidate more likely to support her.

Little Explanation

Phillips’s statement offered little explanation of his decision to quit. British members of Parliament frequently disagree with their leaders. But an article he wrote for the Guardian last month suggested that he was unhappy with the tone of British politics.

“I hated the campaign that ‘Leave’ ran,” Phillips wrote. “I disliked most of the people who ran it. What they said was divisive, xenophobic and untrue.”

He also disagreed with May’s decision to interpret the Brexit vote as a protest against immigration. “I didn’t think ‘Leave’ stood much of a chance,” he wrote. “But I also thought that if there were a vote to leave the EU, the outward-looking, internationalist face of modern multicultural Britain would win through: that although we would leave the EU, we would remain in the single market.”

In that article, he argued that May was wrong not to offer Parliament a say on the shape of Brexit. “The majority of British people want their own Parliament to make the rules by which they are governed,” he wrote. “They don’t want tyranny from their own government any more than they want it from the EU.”

‘Enemies of the People’

The response of Brexit-supporting newspapers to the High Court ruling was furious. The Daily Mail put the judges on its front page under the headline “Enemies Of The People.”

May called German Chancellor Angela Merkel and EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker on Friday morning to update them on the ruling and reassure them that she still plans to keep to her timetable of triggering Article 50 by the end of March. She also had calls scheduled with French President Francois Hollande and Donald Tusk, president of the EU, her office said.

“She explained to both of them that, while the government is disappointed by the judgment, we remain of the firm belief that we have strong legal arguments ahead of the case that will be heading to the Supreme Court next month and we are confident we will win,” May’s spokesman, Greg Swift, told reporters in London. “The prime minister also confirmed that the planned timetable for triggering Article 50 remains the same.”

Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson echoed the point on a visit to Berlin, in a joint press conference with his German counterpart, Frank-Walter Steinmeier. “It’s very, very important to understand that this is one stage in a legal process,” he said. “The government is going to appeal that ruling. I do not think it will interfere with the timetable.”

Steinmeier urged Britain to get on with Brexit. “A long waiting game hurts both the European Union as well as Britain,” he said. “So I hope that the consequences of the ruling of the High Court of Justice doesn’t lead to a lengthy delay for the formal invocation of Article 50.”

— With assistance by Patrick Donahue

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