May Promises Parliament Debates About Brexit -- But Not Votes

  • Prime minister seeks to pacify lawmakers who want detail
  • She refuses to provide ‘every jot and tittle’ of her position

Theresa May, U.K. prime minister.

Photographer: Jasper Juinen/Bloomberg

Theresa May promised U.K. lawmakers they will be able to have a series of debates on how the government should approach leaving the European Union before she begins formal negotiations, a week after she had to back down in the face of a rebellion in her Conservative Party.

The prime minister was forced to agree last week to the principle of allowing Parliament to debate the terms of Brexit. On Monday, she gave more details of what that debate will look like.

“The government will make time available for a series of general debates on the U.K.’s future relationship with the EU,” May said in a statement in the House of Commons in London. “These will take place before and after the Christmas recess, and I expect will include debates on the high-level principles the government will pursue in the negotiations.”

Under parliamentary standing orders, a general debate doesn’t require a vote. May is seeking to pacify both lawmakers who want the greatest possible distance between the EU and the U.K. and those who want the least, by allowing them to argue over the details without nailing her to a position. The prime minister said she didn’t want to give “every jot and tittle” of her negotiating stance.

“The government must not show its hand in detail as we enter into these negotiations,” May said. “But it is important that members have this opportunity to speak.”

As she tried to keep her options open, the prime minister denied that her stated goal of controlling immigration would preclude a free-trade deal with the EU. “We’re going to be ambitious,” she said.

But Andrew Tyrie, the chairman of the Commons Treasury Committee, warned that May’s ambiguity risks damaging business. “Unless the government can provide at least some clarity about its direction of travel, many financial businesses will respond to the uncertainty and plan for the worst,” he said.

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