LONDON: British Prime Minister Theresa May faced a knife-edge vote in parliament late on Tuesday on a crucial piece of Brexit legislation, despite warning that defeat risks undermining her negotiations with Brussels.
MPs in the House of Commons were debating amendments made in the upper House of Lords, and were to vote on one that would give parliament an effective veto over the final Brexit deal.
Hours earlier, a pro-European junior minister, Phillip Lee, ramped up the pressure on May by quitting her government so he could back the veto proposal.
Other flashpoints over two days of debate of the EU (Withdrawal) Bill include proposals to keep Britain tightly aligned with the EU’s economy.
May warned members of her centre-right Conservative Party threatening to rebel that a government defeat would weaken her hand in exit talks with the EU.
“We must think about the message parliament will send to the European Union this week,” she said.
“I am trying to negotiate the best deal for Britain... but if the Lords amendments are allowed to stand, that negotiating position will be undermined.”
Talks with Brussels have stalled over the fraught issue of the Irish border, but both sides are hoping to agree a final deal by October in time for the March 29, 2019 break.
The EU (Withdrawal) Bill would set the legal framework for Brexit, but has been the target of pro-European Lords seeking to change the government’s course.
May’s minority government relies on the support of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party for a slender working majority in the 650-member Commons.
She is worried about the prospect of a rebellion by pro-EU Conservative MPs keen to retain the Lords changes.
There is a strong risk of defeat over the “meaningful vote” amendment, which would give parliament the power to decide what to do if it rejects the final Brexit deal.
Lee, a personal friend of May’s, resigned from the Ministry of Justice to back the amendment.
He rejected the government’s proposal that MPs have a take-it-or-leave-it vote at the end, warning: “A vote between bad and worse is not a meaningful vote.”
By contrast the Lords amendment would “empower parliament to reject a bad deal and direct the government to re-enter discussions, extending or pausing negotiations which are being badly rushed”.
Former attorney general Dominic Grieve, a leading pro-EU Conservative rebel, has put down a compromise amendment, which would still give parliament a say in any “no deal” scenario.
However, the government has indicated it would oppose this in favour of its own, weaker, amendment.
Opening the debate, Brexit Secretary David Davis said the veto proposal would represent “an unconstitutional shift” of power from government to parliament.
The front pages of Leave-backing British newspapers said accepting the Lords amendments would betray the 52 per cent of Britons who backed Brexit in the seismic 2016 referendum.
The Daily Express featured the British flag as its front page with the headline: “Ignore the will of the people at your peril.”
“The time has come for our elected representatives to decide — are you or are you not the servants of the people?”
The top-selling Sun had a front page of British icons including Stonehenge, a fish and chip shop, a London bus and a football, saying: “Great Britain or Great Betrayal.” “Remainer MPs have a simple choice: trust the people of Great Britain... or trigger a shameful betrayal.”
The headlines drew anger among pro-European MPs, who have suffered significant abuse — particularly online — for challenging the government.
Conservative Anna Soubry revealed before the debate that least one MP she knew of would not vote as they wished this week because of threats against them, their family and staff. The leader of the Commons, Andrea Leadsom, said threats and intimidation were “utterly unacceptable” and Speaker John Bercow urged MPs to “do what they believe to be right”. — AFP