LONDON (AP) — A junior member of Prime Minister Theresa May’s government resigned Tuesday over Brexit, emboldening pro-EU lawmakers ahead of key votes in Parliament on Britain’s departure from the European Union.
Conservative lawmaker Phillip Lee, who voted in Britain’s 2016 referendum to remain in the European Union, resigned as a justice minister so he could vote against the government on a measure that would give Parliament more power over the terms of the break.
“The people, economy and culture of my constituency will be affected negatively” by Britain’s EU departure and it is “irresponsible to proceed as we are,” Lee said.
He called for Brexit, now set for March 2019, to be delayed and for the public to get a second referendum on the terms of any exit deal.
Lee’s resignation came as May’s fragile minority government scrambled to shore up support among lawmakers for two days of high-stakes debate and votes on its flagship Brexit bill in the House of Commons.
The European Union Withdrawal Bill, a complex piece of legislation intended to disentangle Britain from four decades of EU rules and regulations, has had a rocky ride through Parliament. The upper chamber, the House of Lords, inserted amendments in 15 areas to soften the terms of Britain’s departure.
The government says the changes would weaken Britain’s negotiating position, and is seeking to alter or reverse them in the Commons. But May is facing a potential rebellion from some lawmakers from her Conservative Party who want to retain close ties with the bloc after the U.K.’s exit takes effect.
They are rallying around an amendment giving the House of Commons power to send the government back to the negotiating table with Brussels if lawmakers don’t like the terms of the Brexit deal struck with the EU. Currently, the government is offering lawmakers a “take it or leave it” vote on the final deal.
“We must under all circumstances respect the result of the referendum,” Brexit Secretary David Davis told lawmakers as he opened the debate.
Davis said giving Parliament power to direct the government’s hand in talks would be “an unconstitutional shift which risks undermining our negotiations with the European Union.”
“It’s not practical, it’s not desirable and it’s not appropriate,” he said.
Another flashpoint could come when lawmakers vote Wednesday on an amendment seeking to keep Britain in a customs union with the EU.
Parliamentary debates about complex legal amendments rarely rouse much heat, but passions run high over anything to do with Brexit.
Pro-Brexit tabloid the Sun warned lawmakers on Tuesday’s front page that they had a choice: “Great Britain or great betrayal.” The Daily Express thundered: “Ignore the will of the people at your peril.”
Anna Soubry, a pro-EU Conservative lawmaker, said she knew of one legislator who would not vote with their conscience because of “threats to their personal safety” and that of staff and family.
May urged Conservative lawmakers to back the government and show “that we are united as a party in our determination to deliver on the decision made by the British people.”
In fact, her party is far from united. May’s Cabinet is divided between ministers including Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who support a clean break with the EU, and those such as Treasury chief Philip Hammond who want to keep closely aligned to the bloc, Britain’s biggest trading partner.
Britain is due to leave the EU on March 29, 2019, and the bloc is frustrated with what it sees as a lack of firm proposals from the U.K about future relations.
A paper laying out the U.K. government position, due to be published this month, has been delayed because the Cabinet cannot agree on a united stance.
Ivan Rogers, Britain’s former ambassador to the EU, told a committee of lawmakers Tuesday that achieving Brexit would “take years” and be “bloody difficult.”
“You should view leaving the European Union as a process,” not an event, he said.
Danica Kirka contributed to this story.