U.K.’s May Faces Brexit Revolt as Lawmakers Challenge Her Power

  • Rebel Tories join opposition calls for written Brexit plan
  • Brexit Secretary: don’t use bill to try to “thwart” withdrawal

U.K.’s Theresa May Faces New Hurdles on Brexit Talks

U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May is battling a rebellion from her own lawmakers which threatens to complicate her talks over leaving the European Union.

Emboldened by the Supreme Court’s decision on Tuesday to hand Parliament more power over the Brexit process, at least six Conservative legislators are uniting with the main opposition Labour party to demand May publishes an official government document detailing her negotiating goals.

Theresa May leaves for Parliament on Jan. 25.

Photographer: Luke MacGregor/Bloomberg

Their aim is to subject May to the greater parliamentary scrutiny and accountability she sought to avoid, ensuring they can better hold her to promises such as her pledge to deliver a sweeping post-Brexit trade deal with the EU. A so-called white paper could limit her room to maneuver in the talks even if lawmakers prove unable to use their new-found strength to soften her strategy.

“I would like a white paper that we could debate,” Anna Soubry, the Tory former business minister, said in Parliament on Tuesday, arguing that such a move would bridge the divide between May and her critics. “The reality is that we have abandoned the single market and the free movement of people without any debate in this place, never mind a vote,” she said.

For more on the consequences of May’s Brexit strategy, click here

The uprising came hours after the Supreme Court ruled Parliament and not the premier carries the power to invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which sets the clock ticking on two years of debate with the EU.

The government, which still intends to trigger the talks by March 31, must now introduce a bill to Parliament with reports suggesting the legislation could come as soon as Thursday. May’s critics will try to amend the bill with the intention of diluting her plans or exerting some future control over her.

High Stakes

“The prime minister was wrong to attempt to sideline Parliament,” Labour’s Brexit spokesman Keir Starmer said. “The stakes are high and the role of this House in holding the prime minister and the government to account throughout this process is crucial.”

With May having a slim working majority in the Commons of just 16, it would take only a small rebellion from her own side for her to lose a vote on the issue. That could serve as a reminder that her control of Brexit and indeed power could prove tenuous as the exit talks progress.

Starmer said he will try to re-write the bill to force the publishing of a formal plan. He said he also wanted to require May to report back to lawmakers regularly and to give them a meaningful, binding vote on the final deal she strikes with the EU.

“We will be seeking to lay amendments to ensure proper scrutiny and accountability throughout the process,” Starmer said. “That starts with a white paper, or plan.”

Written Commitments

In December, Parliament voted to force May to publish a plan for Brexit before triggering Article 50, in a motion that also endorsed the premier’s timetable for pulling the trigger by the end of March. Brexit Secretary David Davis suggested such a plan would be unveiled in February.

Despite these commitments, Davis on Tuesday rejected calls for a written Brexit plan, insisting that May’s speech in London on Jan. 17 was the final word on the U.K.’s approach to the negotiations. In that, she said she will pull Britain out of the single market to win control of immigration, law-making and the budget.

Davis said he would bring forward a short and “simple” bill, indicating he would not welcome attempts to amend the legislation. He said he hoped lawmakers from all parties would pass the act of Parliament “swiftly.”

During Tuesday’s debate, 14 members of parliament explicitly called for a white paper. Of the six Tories to do so, five were former ministers including Soubry, Nicky Morgan and Dominic Grieve.

“While today’s majority ruling will not change the U.K.’s decision to leave the EU or say what our future relationship with Europe might look like, what it does do is strongly underline the absolute sovereignty of Parliament,” said Ros Kellaway, head of EU competition and regulation at law firm Eversheds.

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