U.K. Brexit Debate Flags Economic Risk Ahead of Trigger Vote

  • Osborne says neither May nor EU are prioritizing the economy
  • Lawmakers to vote on May’s Article 50 Bill Wednesday evening

Divisions Amongst Tories Over Direction of Brexit

U.K. lawmakers debated Brexit for a second day, laying bare the divisions that have riven the country since the vote to leave the European Union and the risks to the economy posed by the divorce.

Prime Minister Theresa May never wanted to give lawmakers a vote on whether to trigger the start of Brexit and the debate so far shows why she was so reluctant. Members of Parliament reconvened early Wednesday afternoon after 11 hours of discussions on Tuesday. Her draft law faces its first hurdle with a vote at about 7 p.m. in the House of Commons.

While it’s almost sure to pass, fellow Conservatives reminded May during the debate that she won’t have carte blanche when it comes to negotiating Brexit. Former Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne on Wednesday flagged the dangers to the economy, which he said neither May nor the EU are making their primary consideration.

"Both sides at the moment are heading for a clean break from the European Union for the United Kingdom," Osborne told lawmakers. "We are not prioritizing the economy, although we hope for the best possible arrangement. 

Read a primer on why Brexit’s detour through Parliament matters

The EU “is not prioritizing the economy either in these negotiations," he added.

Britain’s focus is on controlling immigration and freeing the country from the jurisdiction of European courts, Osborne said. For the EU, it’s maintaining the integrity of the bloc.

May said last month she intends to pull Britain out of the EU’s single market and end its full membership of its customs union. But she’s yet to present a written plan -- known as a white paper -- to Parliament to lay out her Brexit strategy. Colleagues have pressed her to publish it before line-by-line discussions begin next week on the Article 50 bill, and she acceded to that demand on Wednesday, pledging to publish the document on Thursday.

Whether or not to leave the EU “was the only question that was asked of the British people in that referendum,” Osborne said. “I don’t think we can assume there are a set of answers from the British people to the questions now face as a Parliament. Those questions are now entrusted to us.”

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

Not Convinced

“I remain far from convinced that we will get any good deal,” said Anna Soubry, a former Conservative business minister. “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. 

For May, the possibility of suffering some kind of parliamentary defeat is real. She has a Commons majority of just 16 votes. While Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the main opposition Labour Party, has told his lawmakers to back triggering Article 50, the party seeks to amend the bill. In all, more than 100 amendments have been proposed, including some wanting to tie May’s hands in the negotiations to ensure she keeps the U.K. in the single market.

The former coalition partners of May’s Tories, the Liberal Democrats, want May’s eventual EU deal to be put to another referendum.

“The Leave campaign had no plans, no instructions, no prospectus and no vision,” Liberal Democrat Leader Tim Farron said on Wednesday. “No one in this country has any idea what the deal the prime minister will negotiate with Europe will be. It is completely unknown. How, then, can anyone pretend that this undiscussed, unwritten unnegotiated deal in any way has the backing of the British people?”

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