U.K. Lawmakers Agree Parliament Should Scrutinize Brexit Plans

  • Government hasn’t conceded right of lawmakers to a vote
  • Premier agrees to ‘full and transparent debate’ on her terms

The Legal Challenges Facing Britain's EU Divorce

U.K. lawmakers approved an opposition Labour Party motion calling on the government to give Parliament the right to examine its negotiating strategy before Brexit talks that are set to start by the end of March.

The motion, and a government amendment saying that parliamentary scrutiny should respect the referendum vote in June for Britain to leave the European Union, were passed by acclamation in the House of Commons in London just before 7 p.m. on Wednesday, without the need to count votes. The decision doesn’t give lawmakers the right to vote on the government’s negotiating strategy after Keir Starmer, the Labour Brexit spokesman, made clear the motion was a call for scrutiny only.

“Today is a big victory, because we were arguing for scrutiny, we were saying that the government must bring the plans to Parliament and allow us to see them and to question them on the plans,” Starmer told Channel 4 News shortly after the debate ended. “They’ve never conceded that before.”

Prime Minister Theresa May has said she’ll trigger Article 50 of the EU’s Lisbon Treaty to mark the formal start of Brexit negotiations by the end of March. Closing Wednesday’s debate, Brexit Minister David Jones said the trigger is a “matter for royal prerogative,” allowing the government to bypass a parliamentary vote.

“We will take fully into account the views of all members in our parliamentary engagement,” Jones said. “We’ll shortly be entering into extensive and detailed negotiations as to the terms of our withdrawal, and it’s entirely right that the government should not damage its position in those negotiations by spelling out in fine detail what that negotiating position is. Nobody sensible would expect that, least of all those with whom we will be negotiating.”

The pound earlier climbed against all of its 31 major peers after May agreed late on Tuesday to the Labour Party motion, which called for a “full and transparent debate on the government’s plan for Brexit.” While the implication was that there would be a vote since it is the usual procedure for ending a debate on a motion in the House of Commons, she refused to commit to one on Wednesday, when asked explicitly about it during her weekly question-and-answer session.

‘Every Opportunity’

“The idea that Parliament wasn’t going to be able to discuss, debate, question issues around” Brexit “was frankly completely wrong,” May said. “Parliament’s going to have every opportunity to debate this issue.”

May’s government privately accepts it is powerless to stop lawmakers calling their own vote on the Brexit negotiations, according to an official. While such a vote is likely to take place in the coming months, it would not bind the government to act in a certain way, according to the official, who asked not to be named while discussing May’s strategy.

The pound gave up some of its earlier gains and was up 0.7 percent at $1.2207 as of 8:15 p.m. in London. Sterling plunged to a three-decade low this month.

Closing Labour’s arguments, the party’s trade spokesman, Barry Gardiner, said that while most pro-EU lawmakers accepted the referendum verdict, they still wanted a say on the manner of Britain’s departure.

‘Morally Repugnant’

“We can no longer debate whether we leave the EU, but we absolutely must debate how we leave the EU,” Gardiner said. “Each of the different possible outcomes of our leaving the EU has both advantages and downsides, and it would be morally repugnant for anyone to pretend that there is only one sort of Brexit.”

Starmer earlier said that while he would be “pressing for a vote” in future, he wouldn’t be going so far on Wednesday. Brexit Secretary David Davis replied that he would allow scrutiny by Parliament so long as it wasn’t used to “thwart the process of exit.”

Davis twice refused to answer direct questions about whether he wants Britain to remain in the EU single market, saying negotiators will seek the best deal from a range of possible outcomes, rather than following a Norwegian-style arrangement or any other model.

He listed “establishing the freest possible market in goods and services with the EU and the rest of the world” as one of his “overarching objectives” in negotiations.

“We’re going to go for a British option and that will be tailored to our interests and will be better than any other option,” he said. “There’s a whole spectrum from a free-trade area to a customs union to a single-market arrangement. We’ll be seeking the best of the spectrum of outcomes.”

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