LONDON — A day after the stunning High Court ruling that threatens to derail British Prime Minister Theresa May’s plans to withdraw from the European Union, few in Britain were suggesting that Brexit is dead.
But for the first time since the June 23 referendum that so crushed pro-E.U. voters, there were glimmers of hope on the “remain” side that Britain will opt for something other than a hard exit from the E.U.
“It’s the first piece of good news they have had since June,” said Tim Bale, a professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, referring to those who voted to stay in the union. “But I don’t think anyone should be celebrating in the sense that this could scupper Brexit. But it does mean the government has lost the initiative.”
Britons voted 52 to 48 to leave the E.U. but not on what the departure would look like.
All the noises coming from the British government until now have indicated that the country was veering toward a “hard” Brexit, which many take to mean prioritizing controls on the free movement of people over access to the E.U.’s single market.
But the government’s chess table was toppled Thursday after three High Court judges ruled that May has to consult with Parliament before triggering Article 50, which would start the two-year divorce proceedings.
Adding to May’s woes, her Conservative party’s slim majority in the House of Commons was reduced Friday when Stephen Phillips, a pro-Brexit Conservative member of Parliament, resigned over “irreconcilable differences” with the government. He had said in previous interviews that he was deeply unhappy with the government’s handling of Brexit.
British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson told a news conference in Berlin on Friday that the government would fight the ruling in the Supreme Court, and that their timetable for withdrawing from the E.U. remains unchanged.
“It’s very important to recognize that the British people voted to leave the European Union,” he said. “That is what we are going to get on and do.”
But the Thursday ruling, if upheld, means that instead of one step involved in triggering Article 50 — May penning a letter to Brussels at some point before her self-imposed deadline of the end of March — it could now involve multiple steps.
The majority of lawmakers voted to “remain” in the E.U., but there have been few calls since the referendum to contradict the electorate and block Brexit.
One headline in the pro-E.U. Guardian newspaper on Friday said, “Ardent remainers: don’t let high court decision raise your hopes.”
But analysts said that Parliament’s involvement could hugely complicate May’s exit strategy.
If the government loses its case in the Supreme Court next month, Parliament would probably need to pass legislation before triggering Article 50. It is unclear what that would look like, but any such act could be subject to amendments by both houses of Parliament. It also is an open question as to how long that would take.
Some of those who campaigned for Brexit argue that Thursday’s ruling is an establishment setup, a way to ignore the democratic will of the British people who decisively voted to leave the bloc.
The Daily Mail newspaper featured pictures Friday of the three High Court judges on its front page under the headline “Enemies of the People.” In an editorial, the Sun newspaper asked whether politicians would honor the “biggest ballot box mandate in British history” or “sniffily decide the little people cannot be trusted.”
Nigel Farage, a prominent Brexiteer and the interim leader of the U.K. Independence Party, tweeted: “My fear is we now get half Brexit. Establishment will try and lock us inside single market. Would be a total betrayal!”
Nick Clegg, the former deputy prime minister, told the BBC on Friday that several pro-E.U. lawmakers, including him, would seek legislation that promoted a “soft Brexit” as well as “some means by which the British people can have a say on the final deal” when negotiations with the E.U. are finished.
Britain’s House of Commons has 650 members, many of whom have diverging views on Brexit. The House of Lords, the upper chamber, has more than 800 members.
Anthony King, a professor of government at the University of Essex, said that the impact of having to consult with Parliament means that “the number of potential veto players or politicians of influence has suddenly increased.”
“It may never happen,” King said of Britain’s departure from the E.U. “And if it does happen, it will be as soft as the remainers and the people who want a soft exit can possibly hope for.”