Britain’s Parliament must give its assent before the British government can formally exit the European Union, the United Kingdom’s High Court ruled Thursday.
The decision immediately prompted speculation that Britain may not exit the EU at all, sparking widespread anger from pro-Brexit forces. Meanwhile, those opposed to Britain’s departure are rejoicing.
Now there’s still a tremendous amount of uncertainty about what will happen in the next few months. British Prime Minister Theresa May has already declared that she has no intention of letting Parliament “derail” her plans to initiate Brexit by May 2017.
So, is Brexit finished or still full speed ahead? Here are the ways Brexit could play out:
1. May Could Appeal … And Win
As high-profile as the High Court’s ruling was, it wasn’t actually final. May immediately announced a government appeal of the decision, saying she is “confident” the government will win. May’s government contends that the Brexit referendum is a direct public mandate, and Parliamentary approval has already been achieved through the original law calling the referendum. May’s opponents argue that a unilateral Brexit undermines the absolute supremacy of Parliament, while also disenfranchising the British public.
The government’s appeal will be heard in early December by all 11 High Court justices, with an expected decision in January. The timing of the appeal could still throw off May’s aggressive Brexit timetable. Britain’s withdrawal from the EU depends on Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which states that a country may exit the EU two years after invoking the article. May has expressed her intent to trigger Article 50 by next March, but if the High Court leaves her in suspense until January, it could be challenging to meeting that deadline even if the ruling is favorable.
2. Ram It Through
The U.K. political system has some key differences from the American system, which strengthen May’s hand and make it more likely that she can ram through a Brexit bill despite the latest setback.
In the U.S., political parties are relatively loose coalitions. Individuals can run for office as members of a particular party simply by announcing that they associate with that party, even if the party establishment rejects them (Donald Trump’s presidential campaign is an excellent example). In addition, an officeholder’s stated party affiliation does little to bind their actions. It’s very easy for Sen. Joe Manchin to break with Democrats on abortion or gun rights, or for Sen. Mark Kirk to play nice with Obama in an effort to win re-election in deep blue Illinois.
But in the U.K., political party establishments have more control over whom is allowed to represent their party, and British political tradition gives individual lawmakers less leeway to break with the party. As leader of the Conservative Party, May has the ability to order a whipped vote, in which the expectation is that party members will vote as she commands. Those who fail to do so could be expelled from the party or face other severe consequences, meaning May can effectively force through her preferred version of Brexit. May’s effort to do this would likely only fail if a substantial number of Conservative MPs collectively defied her, an outcome which could also cause her downfall as prime minister.
Such a rebellion isn’t unlikely, though, since the Conservative Party isn’t unanimously in favor of Brexit. It’s possible that on such a momentous issue, at least some Conservative MPs would break rank, regardless of the consequences. May has some insurance in that case. Besides her slim 15-seat majority in the House of Commons, May can also count on some minor parties to provide limited additional support. The UK Independence Party has a lone MP who can be counted on to back Brexit, while the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland also endorsed Brexit and possesses eight MPs. The Ulster Unionist Party, another minor party from Northern Ireland, possesses two MPs who also are likely to support May. The opposition Labour Party also has a handful of MPs who vocally supported Brexit, who may themselves defect to support May if the chance arises.
3. Call A New General Election
The High Court’s decision means Brexit opponents in Parliament could indefinitely extend debate proceedings, or demand certain trade deal conditions in exchange for their vote. If May wants to expedite the parliamentary vote or finds the opposition’s demands intolerable, she could resort to the shortcut of calling a new general election.
Election dates in the UK are scheduled every five years, but the prime minister still has the power to dissolve parliament and call a new general election at any time in order to obtain a new democratic mandate to govern the country. If May called a new general election, campaigned on implementing Brexit, and once again won a majority of seats in the House of Commons, it would immensely strengthen her position and make it almost impossible for dissident Conservatives or opposition parties to block Brexit. Of course, calling a general election carries with it the risk that May would lose the election, potentially scuttling Brexit entirely in spite of last summer’s referendum.
4. Total Chaos
Given May’s stated opposition to a new general election,Parliamentary interference could bog down the Brexit process for months. Once the British government triggers the EU’s Article 50 it has exactly two years to negotiate its exit terms and trade deals.
A wavering Parliament could dither on May’s proposed trade deals, could demand its own terms, or simply reject any deal to drag the process out as long as possible. May has insisted on making Brexit as orderly a process as possible to calm financial markets. Financial markets are already jittery over Brexit, with the British pound currently at a 31 year low.
Alternately, May could call a new election that fails to produce any decisive result at all. If a new election resulted in the Conservatives winning the most votes but having only a plurality of seats in Parliament, it could be almost impossible to sort out what form Brexit should take.
A disorderly Brexit process could plunge the pound lower and severely depress the British economy, further complicating matters and potentially even sparking a political backlash that derails Brexit halfway.
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