Tories Remind May She Doesn’t Get a Free Rein on Brexit

Updated on
  • Lawmakers demand more scrutiny, binding vote on Brexit deal
  • Article 50 law likely to pass first stage, with Labour backing

Theresa May never wanted to give lawmakers a vote on whether to trigger the start of Brexit, even though she’s likely to win it. Eleven hours of debate showed why the British prime minister was so reluctant.

Her draft law faces its first hurdle on Wednesday with a vote in the House of Commons. While it’s almost sure to pass, fellow Conservatives want to remind May that she won’t have carte blanche when it comes to negotiating the U.K.’s departure from the European Union in the months ahead.

In speeches during a rare, late-night sitting on Tuesday, members of Parliament of all stripes demanded more power over how May conducts the delicate talks -- especially if they start to go wrong.

“As we embark on these negotiations I remain far from convinced that we will get any good deal,” Anna Soubry, a former Conservative business minister, told the chamber. “If no deal has been struck at the end of this process, all options must remain open and it will be for this place, not the government, to decide what happens next.”

At stake is how much autonomy May can exert in negotiating Brexit or whether she will make concessions in order to stick to her timetable of triggering the legal mechanism to quit the European Union by March 31.

100 Amendments

The prime minister will have to watch a succession of lawmakers sink their teeth into her draft law during detailed debates next week. More than 100 amendments will be proposed, seeking to re-write the bill. Some want to tie May’s hands in the negotiations to ensure she keeps the U.K. in the single market.

On the first day of debate, a series of May’s colleagues pressed her to publish the so-called Brexit white paper before detailed line-by-line discussions begin next week. A day later, May told lawmakers Wednesday in her weekly question-and-answer session that the document will be released Thursday.

For May, the possibility of suffering some kind of parliamentary defeat is real. She has a narrow Commons majority of just 16 votes.

The debate also exposed divisions within May’s own party, with anti-Brexit Soubry suggesting her pro-Brexit Tory colleague Michael Gove had lied during the campaign in claiming there were benefits to withdrawing from the 28-nation bloc.

Another Tory, ex-Culture Minister Ed Vaizey, warned that a trade deal with the U.S. would take years to finalize and would lead to street protests. “Please don’t mock our intelligence by claiming we are going to sign a suite of free-trade deals on day one of leaving the EU,” he said.

“We can and we must in this House hold the government to account on a range of issues,” Vaizey said. The Conservatives promised at the 2015 general election to stay in the single market but May is now committed to leaving it, he said. “We want to see how the government will square that circle.”

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