Tories Attack May’s ‘Mad’ Brexit Date Law, Threaten Revolt

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  • Rebel Grieve is cheered by other former ministers in Commons
  • Government wins series of votes in Parliament on Tuesday
Bloomberg’s Emma Ross-Thomas previews Brexit’s critical five weeks on "Bloomberg Markets: European Close."

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U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May is heading for a showdown with her own Tory party over what one member of Parliament called her “mad” plan to write the date of Brexit into British law.

Former Attorney General Dominic Grieve was cheered by several of his senior colleagues Tuesday in the House of Commons in London as he said he’d vote to stop May’s proposal to enshrine the date of withdrawal -- March 29, 2019 -- in statute.

Such a law would force Britain out of the EU and also out of hundreds of other treaties, even if no deal has been reached on a future trading relationship, he said. “I will vote against it - absolutely no ifs, no buts, no maybes about this, no arm-twisting, nothing that can be done to me in the intervening period” to change my mind, Grieve told lawmakers. He described Brexit as an “extraordinarily painful process of national self-mutilation” and insisted Parliament had the right to intervene in the government’s plans at every stage.

Read more: Brexit Repeal Bill Faces Bumpy Parliamentary Ride: QuickTake Q&A

Despite the saber-rattling, rebels threatening to force May to change her Brexit policy held their fire during the marathon parliamentary session Tuesday after the government used its control of the timetable to push back the most controversial debates.

May won a series of votes on clauses in her flagship European Union Withdrawal Bill as it returned to the Commons for detailed examination. The government easily won the first two votes Tuesday evening, by margins of 318-52 and then 318-68. Subsequent votes were closer, with May winning by a majority of 20. The bill begins a second day of detailed debate Wednesday.

The Euroskeptic backlash against the Tory critics of the bill began immediately. The Brexit-supporting Daily Telegraph newspaper published a front-page article featuring photographs of 15 members of Parliament who signaled their opposition to the plan to put a Brexit date into law, under the headline: “The Brexit Mutineers.”

In the Commons, former business minister Anna Soubry accused the paper of trying to bully lawmakers. Earlier, she and ex-minister Nicky Morgan had cheered Grieve while Oliver Letwin -- who served in David Cameron’s cabinet -- raised concerns over details in the bill.

Northern Irish Support

The bill itself is 66 pages long, but 188 pages of amendments have been put forward -- some of them with multiparty support as the Brexit debate crosses party lines. Both opponents and the most enthusiastic supporters of Brexit see the legislation as a chance to try to influence the divorce process. The prime minister only has a majority in the Commons thanks to the support of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionists, which makes her very vulnerable to any rebellions.

The government’s amendment proposing to write Brexit day into law won’t be voted on until the final day of the detailed examination of the legislation. No date for that has yet been set.

Labour’s Brexit spokesman, Keir Starmer, called on May on Tuesday to withdraw the proposal. Lawmakers on both sides have expressed dismay that it would tie the government’s hands in the negotiation and increase the chances of crashing out of the bloc without a deal.

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