UK’s May seeks to keep Brexit plan going despite setback

LONDON – British Prime Minister Theresa May sought Friday to reassure European Union leaders that her timetable for Britain to leave the EU remains intact despite a court ruling requiring British lawmakers to have more of a say in the process.

She telephoned Jean-Claude Juncker, the EU’s top official, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel to say her plan is still to start the process to remove Britain from the EU by the end of March. Officials say she will also call French President Francois Hollande and European Council President Donald Tusk.

In Berlin, British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson said the court ruling should not interfere with the government’s Brexit timetable. He described Britain’s planned EU exit as a “huge opportunity” and said “with the right spirit, I believe we can turn these negotiations into a win-win discussion.”

But May’s hopes of a “business as usual” approach suffered an unexpected blow with the abrupt resignation of a pro-Brexit Conservative Party legislator who had complained about the government’s plan to implement Brexit without involving Parliament. A byelection will be held, and the resignation reduces May’s already slender Conservative majority in the House of Commons.

Her round of calls to senior European figures came a day after a High Court ruling that the British government needs Parliament’s approval before invoking Article 50 of the EU treaty, which formally begins a two-year countdown to Britain’s exit from the 28-nation bloc. The decision by the three-judge court has the potential to delay that process.

The government is appealing the ruling at the Supreme Court, with a hearing expected next month. If the country’s highest court rules against the government, Parliament will become directly involved in discussions over how the Brexit process begins.

A number of lawmakers from opposition parties want assurances from the government that it won’t be seeking a so-called “hard Brexit” that will see Britain leave the European single market of more than 500 million people.

The court decision Thursday has stoked speculation that May will look to call an early general election next spring, where Conservative Party is predicted to win an overwhelming majority, according to opinion polls.

Party unity suffered a blow with the resignation of lawmaker Stephen Phillips, who said he was leaving office because of differences with May’s approach. In the past, he complained that it was “tyranny” for the government to move forward on Brexit without giving Parliament a say.

“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,” said Phillips, who represents Sleaford and North Hykeham, 120 miles (190 kilometres) north of London.

Another Conservative legislator, Zac Goldsmith, resigned last week in disagreement with the government’s support for a third runway at Heathrow Airport.

In the German capital, Johnson sought to calm fears about the U.K. court ruling while his German counterpart called for Brexit negotiations to start “as soon as possible.”

“This is one stage in a legal process, that the government is going to appeal that ruling, and I think that it’s very important to recognize that the British people voted to leave the European Union,” Johnson said after meeting German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

“And that is what we are going to get on and do, and … no, I don’t think it will interfere with the timetable for that process.”

Steinmeier said “we should create the conditions as soon as possible for the negotiations to begin.”

“A stalemate won’t do either side any good,” he added.

Several pro-Brexit newspapers reacted with anger to the court decision.

The Daily Mail tabloid’s front page characterized the three High Court judges as “Enemies of the People.” Its editorial complained they were willing to frustrate the wishes of the more than 17 million people who voted in favour of leaving the EU.

The Daily Telegraph headlined its front page: “The judges versus the people,” and carried a front-page column by U.K. Independence Party interim leader Nigel Farage saying the court ruling means that “a great betrayal is underway.”