May Is Steadfast on Brexit Timing as U.K. Schism Deepens

Updated on
  • Government to ‘get on’ with Brexit, May writes in Telegraph
  • Government has ‘strong’ legal case to make on appeal, she says

Measuring up the Potential Brexit Fallout

Theresa May insisted Britain’s exit from the European Union won’t be obstructed by judges or lawmakers as the backlash after last week’s constitutional ruling deepened the country’s political schism. May said her government had a strong legal case to make on appeal.

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“While others seek to tie our negotiating hands, the government will get on with the job of delivering the decision of the British people,” the prime minister said in the Sunday Telegraph, her first public remarks since the High Court declared that lawmakers should vote on the start of negotiations with the EU. “MPs and peers who regret the referendum result need to accept what the people decided.”

Theresa May

Photographer: WPA Pool/Getty Images

The ruling on Thursday by a High Court panel provoked the Daily Mail to brand its judges as “enemies of the people,” evidence of an increasingly toxic political climate in which no national institution is considered sacred. May flew to India on Sunday to explore a post-Brexit trade deal, leaving lawmakers to await a briefing on Monday on her legal response as an eruption of wrath on both sides of the Brexit debate morphs toward a constitutional crisis.

“I believe in and value the independence of our judiciary,” May told reporters on the flight to India. “I also value the freedom of our press. I think these both underpin our democracy. They are important.”

The reaction of several U.K. newspapers remained a point of conflict on Sunday,  with Gina Miller, the citizen who took the government to court triggering last week’s ruling, faulting their headlines.

“The papers have behaved, in my view, disgracefully,” Miller said on the “Andrew Marr Show” on the BBC. “The dark clouds are definitely gathering -- and it’s every -ism you can think of: sexism, racism, homophobia. Everything is there.”

Nigel Farage, the former leader of the pro-Brexit U.K. Independence Party, said on the same program that “the temperature of this is very, very high,” and suggested that the national mood would not tolerate any deviation from the goal of a full break with the EU.

“There is a political and wealthy ruling elite who are not prepared to accept the democratic result of referendums,” he said. “If the people in this country think that they’re going to be cheated, they’re going to be betrayed, then we will see political anger the likes of which none of us in our lifetimes have ever witnessed in this country.”

Their remarks underline the vitriol emerging as Brexit becomes a matter of constitutional gravity in a nation with no single legal text governing its democracy. While such ambiguity has proven a strength during the tests of previous centuries, it has also left institutions from the Bank of England to the judiciary open to scarring from the political momentum created by the June 23 referendum result to leave the EU.

Judges ‘Respected’

The assault by some newspapers on the High Court incited fury from the Bar Council, the organization representing barristers in England and Wales, which called on Justice Secretary Liz Truss to condemn it “as a matter of urgency.” She issued a brief statement on Saturday that stopped short of that, extolling the independence of Britain’s judges.

“The judges ought to be respected,” Leader of the House of Commons David Lidington said on ITV’s “Peston on Sunday” broadcast when asked about the reaction of his government colleague. “But freedom of the press is important and you know, the press is sometimes offensive.”

Legal Appeal

Lidington told Parliament last week that it can expect a briefing on Monday on the government’s next steps. Its lawyers will appeal the legal ruling to the Supreme Court, and May pledged to stick to her timetable of starting formal negotiations in March. She wants to prepare a strategy for those talks without “putting all our cards on the table.”

“We think we have strong legal arguments and we will be taking those arguments to the Supreme Court,” May said on the flight to India, noting two recent U.K. court cases have reached different conclusions on the issue.

Her plan to avoid public negotiations is likely to meet resistance from the opposition Labour Party. Its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, told the Sunday Mirror that his party won’t support May’s negotiations unless she pledges to pursue a list of demands including preservation of EU rights for workers.

“We live in a democracy and the government has to be responsive to Parliament,” he said.

Farage said that, if lawmakers tried to force May to negotiate a British exit from the EU that keeps it in the single market, there would need to be an election. Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, speaking on the same BBC program, said that such a vote isn’t either likely or desirable.

“A general election is frankly the last thing that the government wants,” Hunt told Marr. “Frankly it’s the last thing the British people want with all these very, very important national decisions.”

In the meantime, the potential prospect of successive votes by lawmakers to approve May’s start of negotiations suggests that Parliament -- and in particular, its upper house -- could be a future target of Brexit supporters’ ire.

“There are 104 Liberal Democrat life peers who appear to be pledged to delaying the process as much as possible,” Farage said. “This could be the end of the House of Lords.”

(Updates with Masy defense of courts, media in fourth paragraph.)
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