LONDON – The British government was rocked by a resignation and faced anger in Parliament Tuesday over its Brexit plans, but staved off defeat by offering concessions to lawmakers who want to soften the terms of the U.K.’s exit from the European Union.
By a vote of 324 to 298, lawmakers rejected a move to give the House of Commons power to send the government back to the negotiating table if lawmakers don’t like the terms of the Brexit deal struck with the EU.
The result left Prime Minister Theresa May to fight another day as she tries to take Britain out of the bloc while retaining support from pro-EU and pro-Brexit wings of her Conservative Party.
But it came at a cost – a government promise to strengthen Parliament’s voice and curtail its own powers over any final divorce deal with the EU.
The vote came on the first of two days of high-stakes debate and votes in the House of Commons on the government’s flagship Brexit bill.
The European Union Withdrawal Bill, a complex piece of legislation intended to disentangle Britain from four decades of EU rules and regulations, has had a rocky ride through Parliament. The upper chamber, the House of Lords, inserted amendments in 15 areas to soften the terms of Britain’s departure.
The government says the changes would weaken Britain’s negotiating position, and is seeking to reverse them in the Commons.
Brexit Secretary David Davis urged lawmakers to “respect the result of the referendum” and support the government. He said giving Parliament power to direct the government’s hand in talks would be “an unconstitutional shift which risks undermining our negotiations with the European Union.”
“It’s not practical, it’s not desirable and it’s not appropriate,” he said.
The government won the first set of votes Tuesday, but looked set to face defeat on the issue of whether Parliament should have a “meaningful vote” on the Brexit deal. Several pro-EU Conservative lawmakers said they would join the opposition in voting against the government.
The pro-EU faction got a boost when junior justice minister Phillip Lee resigned Tuesday, saying he could no longer support the government’s “irresponsible” plans for Brexit.
In a concession, the government promised that if the U.K and the EU don’t reach a Brexit deal, or if British lawmakers scuttle it, Parliament will then get to approve or reject the government’s plans for what comes next.
The change reduces the likelihood that Britain could leave the EU without a deal if it does not like the divorce terms offered. Pro-Brexit members of the government want to be able to play the “no deal” card, but the House of Commons, where pro-EU voices are stronger, would almost certainly reject the idea.
Pro-EU Conservative Dominic Grieve said that with the government’s move “I am quite satisfied that we are going to get a meaningful vote on both deal and no deal.”
“I have no doubt about it after today,” he said.
Another flashpoint could come when lawmakers vote Wednesday on an amendment seeking to keep Britain in a customs union with the EU.
Two years after Britain voted to leave the EU, and eight months before it’s due to leave on March 29, 2019, the bloc is frustrated with what it sees as a lack of firm proposals from the U.K about future relations.
A paper laying out the U.K. government position, due to be published this month, has been delayed because the Cabinet cannot agree on a united stance.
May’s government is divided between Brexit-backing ministers including Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who support a clean break with the EU, and those such as Treasury chief Philip Hammond who want to keep closely aligned to the bloc, Britain’s biggest trading partner.
Parliamentary debates about complex legal amendments rarely rouse much heat, but passions run high over anything to do with Brexit.
Pro-Brexit tabloid the Sun warned lawmakers on Tuesday’s front page that they had a choice: “Great Britain or great betrayal.” The Daily Express thundered: “Ignore the will of the people at your peril.”
Anna Soubry, a pro-EU Conservative lawmaker, said she knew of one legislator who would not vote with their conscience because of “threats to their personal safety” and that of staff and family.
Pro-Brexit Conservative lawmaker Edward Leigh slammed pro-EU colleagues, saying Parliament must respect the referendum result.
“The people want us to leave the EU. They want us to regain control of our borders,” he said.
“Parliament, don’t stand against the people – implement their will!”