U.K. Parliament Gives Theresa May Permission to Start Brexit

  • Lords approve draft law after Commons overturn two amendments
  • Premier has permission to invoke Article 50 of Lisbon Treaty

U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May Avoids Brexit Revolt

U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May is preparing to trigger Brexit in the last week of March after securing the permission of lawmakers to begin two years of talks with the European Union.

Parliament on Monday passed legislation allowing the government to invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, with the House of Commons overturning amendments from the unelected House of Lords that sought to restrict May’s room for maneuver. She plans to announce the formal start of Brexit in the final week of March, according to two officials familiar with her plans.

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Theresa May

Photographer: Jasper Juinen/Bloomberg

The victory for May in Parliament, where she has a slim majority, allows her to negotiate Brexit with a free hand and consolidates her hold on power in the ruling Conservative Party. She now faces the simultaneous challenge of pulling Britain out of the EU on good terms while navigating a second constitutional upheaval: Scotland’s renewed bid for independence.

Read about what comes next now that May has the power to pull the trigger

Forced by a Supreme Court ruling in January to consult lawmakers, May now has the power she once assumed she had to begin with: to negotiate Brexit at a time of her choosing.

Bill Intact

Lawmakers rejected two revisions by unelected peers that would have guaranteed rights for EU citizens living in the U.K. and given Parliament a final binding say on what May negotiates with the EU. The government argued against the changes, saying it wanted to preserve May’s flexibility in the talks. While some Tories had signaled they might vote against the government, several would-be rebels fell into line or abstained.

“Parliament has today backed the Government in its determination to get on with the job of leaving the EU and negotiating a positive new partnership with its remaining member states,” Brexit Secretary David Davis said in a statement after the vote. “We are now on the threshold of the most important negotiation for our country in a generation.”

Read more: Pound Falls as May Gets Brexit Go-Ahead

May will address the House of Commons on Tuesday, although she isn’t expected to fire the starting gun on exit talks yet.

Diary Clashes

Waiting until the end of the month will avoid souring the March 25 celebrations in Rome of the 60th anniversary of the EU’s founding treaty and allow her to sidestep the Dutch election on March 15 and the Scottish National Party’s conference on March 17-18.

With March 26 landing on a Sunday and the British Parliament on recess on March 31, the likeliest days for the notification are between March 27 and March 30, one of the officials said. 

Announcing Britain’s formal intention to leave poses a risk for May as it cedes power to the EU. Britain is under greater time pressure than the bloc because it faces a two-year countdown at the end of which it will leave the bloc regardless of the deal it can strike.

European Council President Donald Tusk said last week that the EU would respond to an Article 50 notification within 48 hours. The European Commission will then publish legal rules for the talks, spokesman Margaritis Schinas said Tuesday.

Just as May embarks on Brexit talks, she faces another crisis at home.

‘Democratic Deficit’

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said Monday she will next week start the process of getting permission to hold a second independence referendum. Scotland voted to remain in the EU, and Sturgeon says May’s determination to take Britain out of the single market against Scotland’s wishes makes a plebiscite necessary to address a “democratic deficit.”

Sturgeon wants a referendum at some point between the fall of 2018 and the spring of 2019, by which time she expects the terms of the Brexit deal to be clear. That would leave May battling to keep Scotland in the union just as she’s trying to finalize the European divorce with a government team that would already be stretched by the demands of Brexit.

Sturgeon Announces Steps for Independence Vote

Source: Bloomberg

Sturgeon’s threat means the harder the break with the EU, the louder the calls for Scotland to secede will be. Nick Macpherson, a former Treasury official, last week tweeted that the government’s “uncompromising approach to tearing up partial membership” of the EU was “putting at risk the 300-year Union which made Britain Great.”

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