Friday

24th May 2019

British PM limps to EU capital after Brexit defeat

  • Both Tory rebels and Northern Irish unionists highlighted May's weakness in recent days (Photo: consilium.europa.eu)

British MPs have won the right to reject the UK's final Brexit deal in a vote that highlighted prime minister Theresa May's fragile authority.

The amendment to the EU withdrawal bill passed by 309 votes to 305 after an ill-tempered debate in the British parliament on Wednesday (13 December).

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The 24-word text says the government can only make "provision" for "implementing the withdrawal agreement" after if it is "subject to the prior enactment of a statute by parliament approving the final terms of withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union".

It means MPs will be able to veto a deal they do not agree with and to delay or halt the Brexit process if negotiations end with no EU deal at all.

Dominic Grieve, an MP from May's own Conservative Party and a former UK attorney general, who tabled the amendment, invoked the party's iconic WWII-era leader, Winston Churchill, on his side in a speech in parliament.

"There's a time for everybody to stand up and be counted. As Churchill said: 'He's a good party man, he puts the party before himself and the country before his party'," Grieve said.

He said the original form of the bill, allowing May to bypass parliament, amounted to "a form of constitutional chaos".

He later told the BBC that: "The right thing is carrying out Brexit in an orderly, sensible way, which has a proper process."

Grieve was one of 11 Tory rebels who voted against the government.

Anna Soubry, another rebel, said she was proud of being a "bloody difficult" woman, echoing May's own words on her handling of Brexit talks.

Soubry also told The Guardian, a British newspaper, that: "Most of the so-called 'mutineers' are lawyers. We understand the importance of statute".

A May spokesman told press she was "disappointed" by the outcome, but hinted that Grieve's amendment could still be taken out in future deliberations on the EU withdrawal bill.

"This amendment does not prevent us from preparing our statute book for exit day. We will now determine whether further changes are needed to the bill to ensure it fulfils its vital purpose," the spokesman said.

"We are as clear as ever that this bill, and the powers within it, are essential," the spokesman added.

Fragile PM

Wednesday's defeat underlined May's fragile grip on power one day before she was to meet EU leaders at a summit in Brussels.

She has no majority in parliament, having lost it in a snap election she called earlier this year under the slogan of a "strong and stable" government, and relies on the hardline Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in Northern Ireland for support.

"This defeat is a humiliating loss of authority for the government on the eve of the European Council meeting," Jeremy Corbyn, the head of the opposition Labour party, said after Wednesday's outcome.

"May has resisted democratic accountability. Her refusal to listen means she will now have to accept parliament taking back control," he added.

Nadine Dorries, a loyalist Tory MP, echoed his appraisal.

"Tonight, the Tory rebels have put a spring in Labour's step, given them a taste of winning, guaranteed the party a weekend of bad press, undermined the PM, and devalued her impact in Brussels," she said.

The six-hour debate that preceded the vote was marked by jeers, insults, and accusations that anti-Brexit MPs were trying to overturn the result of the British referendum.

Fraying tempers

Dorries said the party rebels should never again be allowed to run as Tory MPs.

Philip Hammond, the British chancellor, physically steered one former rebel MP, Vicky Ford, into the chamber to vote on May's side.

The party also sacked Stephen Hammond, one of the group-of-11, from his post as deputy-chairman immediately after the result was in.

The turbulence in London will not stop EU leaders from declaring on Friday that there was "sufficient progress" on Brexit divorce talks to start phase two of the negotiations - on trade and on transition arrangements.

The deal on "progress" almost fell by the wayside last week when the DUP initially vetoed an agreement on the Irish border.

May's authority will be tested again next week in a British parliament vote to set in stone the exit date of 29 March 2019 - a move that is also opposed by Grieve and fellow Tory malcontents.

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