Wednesday

28th Feb 2024

May avoids defeat in key Brexit bill

  • PM Theresa May has barely kept her slim majority together during several Brexit bill amendments this week (Photo: UK Parliament/flickr)

British prime minister Theresa May narrowly avoided defeat in parliament on Tuesday night (17 July) by pro-European Conservative rebels who wanted to keep the option open of Britain remaining in the EU's customs union after Brexit in case of a no-deal divorce from the EU.

The vote means May can keep her promise to take Britain out of the customs alliance and make its own trade deals.

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Pro-EU MPs saw staying in the customs union as a guarantee to preserving industrial and commercial supply chains and alleviating the economic damage in case there is no final deal between the UK and the EU.

May won the knife-edge vote by 307 votes to 301, highlighting the deep division in parliament and within her own party, and raising questions about whether May can have enough MPs to ratify the final Brexit deal.

The vote came a day after May had to back down in the face of her hardline Brexiteer MPs and support their amendment to a trade bill making it illegal for Northern Ireland to remain in the EU's customs union.

The measure infuriated pro-EU lawmakers and practically killed off the EU's proposed solution for avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland.

Without a solution to the Irish border question, the EU refuses to agree to a withdrawal agreement arguing that it needs to be agreed in the divorce deal, otherwise it threatens the EU's single market.

The political uncertainty in Westminster again raised the prospects of a no-deal scenario, which would see Britain crashing out of the EU next March.

Irish uncertainty

Ireland's premier Leo Varadkar reiterated on Tuesday his government's position is that there can be no Brexit deal without a backstop to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland.

He added that his government will "step up our preparations for a no-deal scenario".

Although Varadkar described the no-deal outcome as unlikely, he said preparations were necessary because "we can't make assumptions that the withdrawal agreement will get through Westminster".

"It's not evident, or not obvious, that the government of Britain has the majority for any form of Brexit quite frankly," he told Irish broadcaster, RTE.

Raab in Brussels

As EU governments get ready to step up planning for a no-deal scenario, the UK's new Brexit secretary Dominic Raab will travel to Brussels for talks on Thursday (19 July).

The government also suffered a defeat in parliament on Tuesday, and under a separate amendment will be forced to seek an agreement with the EU to allow the UK's continued participation in the European medicines regulatory framework.

The government said it had always wanted to remain in the framework.

May will be back in Westminster on Wednesday to take questions from MPs.

The prime minister secured her cabinet's backing for her Brexit plan at Chequers more than a week ago only to see two cabinet minister - Boris Johnson and David Davis - resign, and several junior ministers go, amid deep disagreements within the Conservatives over how closely the UK should remain aligned with the EU after Brexit.

May's government was also forced to abandon a plan to start parliament's summer recess five days early, in a possible bid to head of a vote of no confidence, after much criticism.

No rerun

Meanwhile, a spokesman for May said on Tuesday that Britain's referendum on its EU membership was a legitimate democratic exercise, despite the official Brexit campaign group being referred to the police by the electoral commission over breaching spending rules.

Vote Leave, the official campaign organisation for Brexit, was fined for breaching spending rules in the 2016 referendum.

"We are very clear that this was a legitimate democratic exercise in which the public delivered its opinion and that that is what we're going to be delivering on," the spokesman said.

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