London (AFP) – British Prime Minister Theresa May survived another knife-edge Brexit vote in parliament on Wednesday but came under fresh pressure from the European Union to step up the withdrawal negotiations.
May saw off a rebellion by pro-European MPs on a flagship draft law by offering last-minute reassurances over the role parliament would play if she fails to agree a Brexit deal.
In doing so, she concluded months of acrimonious debate over the EU (Withdrawal) Bill, which sets the legal framework for Brexit and can now finally become law.
A defeat would have been humiliating for the prime minister just days before an EU summit in Brussels, where she will seek to make further progress in the withdrawal negotiations.
May is still publicly aiming for a deal by October, to allow time for the British and European parliaments to ratify it before Britain withdraws from the EU in March 2019.
But the debate in the House of Commons over the implications of a “no deal” reflects concern on both sides of the Channel at the pace of talks.
The EU this week raised the alarm over continued lack of agreement on the key issue of the Irish border, and also knocked back London’s proposals for the future security partnership.
EU leaders meanwhile will be asked at the June 28-29 summit to step up their contingency plans for the possibility of no deal, according to draft conclusions seen by AFP.
– Sovereignty of parliament –
May has promised parliament a vote on Britain’s exit deal, but has been engaged in months of negotiations with MPs in her Conservative party over what happens if it is rejected.
Pro-Europeans are determined that parliament be given the opportunity to intervene to stop Britain crashing out of the bloc, which they say could have catastrophic consequences.
But May warned that any attempt to tie her hands would undermine the negotiations, while eurosceptics accused the rebels of trying to block Britain’s exit altogether.
Under threat of a Conservative revolt last week, May agreed that if there is no deal by January 21, ministers must put a statement to a vote in parliament.
But May insisted MPs could not amend that statement to force the government into a course of action — a stance that critics said made the exercise meaningless.
Just hours before a showdown over the issue on Wednesday, Brexit Secretary David Davis appeared to compromise.
He issued a statement acknowledged that under House of Commons rules, “it will be for the Speaker to determine whether a motion… is or not amendable”.
Leading rebel Conservative Dominic Grieve said this was an “obvious acknowledgement of the sovereignty of this place (parliament)”, and confirmed he would back the government.
However, Tom Brake, from the pro-European Liberal Democrat party, condemned Grieve for getting “cold feet”.
“Despite the clear calamity that May and Davis are making of Brexit, the so-called Tory rebels have lost their bottle and caved into yet another pathetic government compromise,” he said.
MPs voted by 319 to 303 to reject a rebel amendment and backed the government’s plan without a vote.
Later in the evening, the motion was passed without a vote in the Lords, clearing the way for the bill to become law.
– Sick MPs called in –
While May won the day, the high-stakes vote is a reminder of how difficult her situation is.
Her Conservative party commands only a slim majority in the 650-seat Commons and relies on the support of Northern Ireland’s 10 Democratic Unionist Party MPs.
Wednesday’s vote was so close that heavily pregnant and sick MPs were called in to cast their ballots, including one in a wheelchair.
Further clashes are due in the coming weeks when MPs debate bills on Britain’s future trading relationship with the EU.
One difficulty Britain has faced in the negotiations is that May’s divided cabinet has yet to even agree on what it wants from the economic partnership.
The prime minister will gather in her top ministers at her country retreat after the EU summit, where they finally hope to thrash out the detail of London’s offer.