Prime Minister Theresa May’s control of the Brexit process will undergo its stiffest parliamentary test yet on Wednesday, when she faces a showdown with rebels in her party over the laws that will take Britain out of the European Union. May’s government is trying to pass a bill through parliament that will repeal the 1972 legislation binding Britain to the EU and copy existing EU law into domestic law to ensure legal continuity after ‘Exit Day’ on March 29, 2019.
After six days of debate in parliament ranging from the legal minutiae of Brexit to the gaping differences between ‘Remainers’ and ‘Leavers’, May could face a defeat as lawmakers demand more say over the final exit deal. Wednesday’s likely flashpoint is an amendment put forward by a member of May’s own party, the government’s former attorney general, Dominic Grieve, who wants parliament to have a meaningful vote on any deal before it is finalised.If passed by a simple majority vote, the amendment would require parliament to approve the government’s final Brexit deal by passing a separate written law once the terms of the withdrawal agreement are known.
That could allow lawmakers to send May back to the negotiating table if they do not like the deal. The opposition Labour Party has said it will support the amendment, with some believing it would give lawmakers a greater chance to reopen talks – something that might not be supported by EU negotiators.
Grieve said on Wednesday that he did not want to “sabotage” Brexit, but to make sure parliament was allowed to play its role of holding government to account. “My impression of the last few days, when I’ve been talking to the government, is it seems to be a bit of a dialogue of the deaf. They’ve sort of turned this into a battle of wills,” he told Sky News. “This is a completely pointless exercise. They need to listen to the point that’s being made and they need to respond to it.”
May is in a precarious position. In June, she gambled on a snap election to strengthen her party’s majority in the 650-seat parliament but instead bungled her campaign and ended up with a minority government propped up by the 10 votes of a small, pro-Brexit Northern Irish party. Since then she has struggled to assert her authority over a Conservative Party which is deeply divided over the best route out of the EU.
The government has said it is listening to parliament’s concerns and has conceded that a separate piece of legislation, allowing members of parliament (MPs) more say on the deal, would be necessary. The government is planning to pass another bill once the final Brexit deal with Brussels is agreed which will implement the terms of the withdrawal agreement. The government has been forced to give ground on several issues to ward off other rebellions over the Brexit laws.
On Monday, it accepted a proposal to allow lawmakers greater scrutiny over the passage of EU law into British law. Still, after striking a deal with Brussels last week to move exit negotiations on to the next phase, covering trade and transition arrangements, May won approval from both the Remain and Leave factions of her party, suggesting attempts to unseat her were on hold.
The government has not ruled out making last-minute concessions to appease Grieve and the 20 or so Conservative rebels who could join forces with the opposition to inflict defeat. “I think what the MPs are looking for is clarity … We’re looking at the amendment and will respond in due course,” May’s spokesman said on Tuesday.