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British High Court Rules U.K. Parliament Must Approve Brexit Plans

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The roller coaster that is Brexit took another surprise turn today. The high court in London ruled that Prime Minister Theresa May can't begin to lead the United Kingdom out of the European Union without Parliament's consent. The decision is unlikely to stop Britain from leaving the EU, but it raises new questions about the biggest political move in the U.K. in decades. NPR's Frank Langfitt reports from London.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: When Nigel Farage heard the court's ruling this morning, he suggested the fix was in. The interim leader of the U.K. Independence Party which has devoted itself to Brexit wondered if legislators might try to defy the will of the people.

I now fear every attempt will be made to block or delay, Farage wrote on Twitter. But would Parliament really overrule millions of Brexit voters?

PAUL JENKINS: This is not some process for second guessing the result of the referendum.

LANGFITT: Sir Paul Jenkins spent eight years as the chief legal official in the U.K. government. Like most observers today, he doesn't see lawmakers using the court's ruling to help kill Brexit.

JENKINS: It is inconceivable that Parliament, having said there should be a referendum and the referendum producing a clear, albeit small, margin in favor of leaving, I think it's inconceivable politically that Parliament will oppose it.

LANGFITT: But he does see lawmakers slowing the process down, debating and amending any government Brexit bill and pressing May to explain her plans for leaving the European Union, which will involve fierce negotiations with other member states. Jenkins is sympathetic to the bind this puts the prime minister in.

JENKINS: You know, the last thing you want to do is reveal your hand. You know, if you're buying a house, you don't tell the person you're trying to buy it from how much money you've got. You make them an offer.

LANGFITT: Following the vote last summer, May insisted she could launch her nation out of the EU on her own. But plaintiffs took the government to court, arguing only Parliament could trigger the divorce. Today they won. Gina Miller, the lead plaintiff, said Parliament had a right and duty to examine Brexit and all its implications. Miller, an investment manager, explained in an interview with NPR earlier this year.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GINA MILLER: Because I don't feel that we've had a rational, grown-up, sensible debate about all the factors that would impact on us leaving the EU. It was very much overshadowed by people who were basically power hungry politicians who were fooling the public, in my view.

LANGFITT: Many economists think Brexit could be ruinous for the U.K. economy. Miller says now is the time for legislative accountability.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

MILLER: People thought they were voting for something that would be, you know, a better promise land and not realizing that to even the people who are touting leave didn't have a plan.

LANGFITT: News that Parliament would delve into Brexit sent the value of the British pound up by more than 1 percent. Russ Mould says markets like the idea, especially because most legislators were against leaving the EU in the first place. Mould is investment director at AJ Bell, a U.K. brokerage.

RUSS MOULD: Because they don't know what Brexit's going to mean, they like the security of what we're used to, which is where we are now. So anything that waters down Brexit - I think you'll find the markets will warm to that.

LANGFITT: The government says it's disappointed with today's judgment and plans to appeal it to the Supreme Court which is expected to hear the case next month. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.