Parliament Demands Greater Say Over ‘Brexit,’ Defying Theresa May
Posted December 13, 2017 7:35 p.m. EST
LONDON — Britain’s Parliament voted narrowly on Wednesday to demand a decisive say over the country’s plans to withdraw from the European Union, dealing an unexpected defeat to Prime Minister Theresa May, who had asked for maximum leeway to negotiate with Brussels on untangling decades of integration with the Continent.
Rebel lawmakers from the governing Conservative Party joined with pro-European members of opposition parties to require that any final deal to withdraw from the European Union be submitted to Parliament — as legislation — before it can be put into effect.
May had argued that going through such formal approval would add yet another hurdle to the already contentious and protracted negotiation over withdrawal — a process, known as Brexit, that is supposed to be completed by March 2019.
She had promised that lawmakers would get a vote eventually, but the lawmakers effectively refused to take her word for it, insisting by a formal vote — 309-305 — on their explicit right to approve any final deal.
Conservative rebels, led by Dominic Grieve, a lawmaker and a former attorney general, feared that without a specific, legal guarantee of a vote, Parliament might find itself being bypassed at the last minute.
Those rebels joined with members of the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties — some of whom believe the nation made a grave mistake when it voted, in a June 2016 referendum, to approve leaving the European Union. At the time, a majority of lawmakers opposed withdrawal.
That vote ended the political career of May’s predecessor, David Cameron, and left May with the unenviable task of trying to pick up the pieces and make the best of Brexit.
Since then, May lost her parliamentary majority in a snap election she called earlier this year, complicating her already formidable task of negotiating Brexit. She also does not have a majority in the House of Lords, the unelected second chamber of Parliament.
The election setback also led to months of speculation about May’s prospects of survival, particularly after a disastrous speech at the Conservative Party’s annual conference in which her speech was interrupted by a prankster, and May then lost her voice, suffering a persistent cough.
Her government has suffered from two recent Cabinet resignations, with another top minister still under investigation over allegations of inappropriate conduct.
And a recent deal to allow talks on Brexit to proceed to negotiations on future trade ties almost fell apart last week, when a party from Northern Ireland upon whom her government relies said it could not support it.
But May, who is renowned for her persistence, managed to rescue the accord, finally reaching the agreement last Friday.
The 309 lawmakers who formed the unlikely coalition on Wednesday to demand a final say over a withdrawal deal may not agree on much else.
It is one thing to unite lawmakers of widely different views on the rights of Parliament, and quite another to persuade enough of them to agree to soften — or reject — any Brexit deal the government negotiates. Moreover, Parliament seems far from ready to stop Brexit: Early this year, lawmakers gave their explicit approval for May to start negotiations with Brussels under Article 50, the treaty provision that governs leaving the European Union.
Nonetheless, the defeat was an embarrassment for May, whose crucial deal to unblock talks with the European Union on a future trade relationship after Brexit was widely welcomed by her party’s lawmakers only last Friday.
The defeat — the first over Brexit legislation — also underscored the persistent discontent in Parliament. Some lawmakers regret Parliament’s decision in June 2015 to call a referendum and surrender sovereignty on one of the most consequential decisions in Britain’s history. To some extent, the vote on Wednesday represented an attempt to retrieve that sovereignty.
The issue of parliamentary scrutiny is delicate in part because many of those who advocated the Brexit option in the 2016 referendum promised to “take back control” from the European Union and return it to Parliament at Westminster.
May’s critics accused her of sidelining Parliament when she initially argued that she should be able to initiate exit negotiations, under Article 50 of the European Union’s treaty, without recourse to lawmakers. Ultimately she conceded a vote, but only after she was forced to do so by the Supreme Court.
Now May’s position has again been undermined, this time by some of her own lawmakers. In a statement, Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the opposition Labour Party, described the defeat as a “humiliating loss of authority for the government.”
Another Labour Party member, Chuka Umunna, hailed the result as the product of a new willingness to work across party lines in the “national interest.”
The message of nation before faction was also echoed by a rebel Conservative lawmaker, Anna Soubry, who wrote on Twitter that she had “put the interests of everyone in the U.K. before party loyalty.”
Pro-Brexit hard-liners were outraged.
Philip Davies, a Conservative lawmaker, warned that the new vote might be used “to overturn and frustrate” the will of the people, as expressed in the June 2016 referendum.
“If people in this House use that amendment for those purposes, the backlash from the British public will be like none seen before,” he said.