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Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May gives her speech on the final day of the annual Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham, Britain, Oct. 5, 2016. (© Toby Melville / Reuters)
Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May gives her speech on the final day of the annual Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham, Britain, Oct. 5, 2016. (© Toby Melville / Reuters)

David Welch

Will the real Theresa May please stand up? Add to ...

David Welch is the CIGI chair of global security, Balsillie School of International Affairs, and senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation.

The Brexit plot thickens.

On Thursday, the British High Court ruled that Prime Minister Theresa May cannot invoke Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union, as she has promised to do by the end of March, without the approval of Parliament.

Ms. May immediately declared her intention to persevere and announced that the government will file an appeal with the Supreme Court, where legal experts expect it to fail.

The situation is rich with irony. The High Court essentially said the June referendum is not legally binding: Parliament alone is sovereign. Yet here is Ms. May, an avowed Brexit opponent, in high dudgeon over a decision that empowers a Parliament in which her (officially anti-Brexit) party commands a strong majority, loudly complaining at three unelected judges’ insistence that she respect both the democratic process and Britain’s constitutional traditions.

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Remain supporters outnumber Brexit supporters not only in Parliament, but also in her cabinet, and – if the latest polls are to be believed – in the country as a whole. Why is Ms. May not delighted?

There are three possible explanations. The first is that Ms. May is, after all, a true believer. Either she has secretly supported Brexit all along and dissembled her (tepid) opposition to it, or she has recently embraced the faith of the converted without saying so or explaining why. If this view is correct, she will forever be remembered as a profoundly dishonest politician.

The second is that she genuinely considers the June referendum result morally binding. If this is true, then she must be given at least some credit for fidelity to principle. But she must also be convicted of being obtuse, because the principle in question is suspect. When a narrow plurality of eligible voters opts for one course of action on the basis of lies, respecting their right to decide necessarily implies respecting their right to change their minds when more fully informed.

The third is that she is playing games that the High Court has complicated. She may have been setting the stage for a snap election prior to triggering Article 50, asking for a mandate to be released from her Brexit obligation once it became clear that her pro-Brexit cabinet ministers had utterly failed to show that a good deal with Europe could be had. With her opposition in disarray, she would have won a landslide victory, presided over an unprecedented economic boom and secured her place in history as the Prime Minister who saved both the United Kingdom and the European project.

The High Court has now made it awkward for her to go directly to the people for a signed release, because Parliament alone would suffice. If this is the explanation, then she has been caught out in her attempt to be too clever by half.

It is never a good sign when one cannot decide whether the leader of an important country on the brink of a momentous decision is dishonest, obtuse or unskilled. The High Court’s decision has made clear that Ms. May needs to come clean. She needs to state publicly and fully whether she thinks Brexit is in Britain’s national interest. She needs to articulate clearly her understanding of representation and leadership – in particular, whether she sees herself, as the great statesman and political theorist Edmund Burke put it, as a trustee whose primary obligation is to use her own best judgment when making important decisions of state, or as a mere delegate whose obligation is to channel the wishes of the majority. If she sees herself as a delegate, she needs to explain why she thinks the June referendum should be binding when there is so much Brexit remorse today.

Ms. May finds herself in a uniquely powerful position. Because she leads a party with a weak and divided opposition in a parliamentary system where the executive can control the legislature through strict party discipline, she has it within her power to steer Britain either toward or away from Brexit. In no sense is she powerless, and in no sense are her hands tied.

Let us hope that Ms. May knows what she is doing. The best test of that would be to require her to explain.

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