The British government won a key vote in Parliament on its flagship Brexit legislation on Wednesday, but remains locked in a tussle with lawmakers over the direction of the country’s departure from the European Union.
The House of Commons rejected by a vote of 319-303 a proposal to make the government get Parliament’s approval before agreeing to a final divorce deal with the EU - or before walking away from the bloc without an agreement.
Since a majority of lawmakers favor retaining close ties with the bloc, that would have reduced the chances of a “no deal” Brexit, a scenario that is feared by UK businesses but favored by some euroskeptic members of Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservative minority government, who want a clean break with the bloc.
May faced rebellion last week from pro-EU Conservative legislators, but avoided defeat by promising Parliament would get a “meaningful vote” on the UK-EU divorce agreement before Brexit occurs next March.
Symbolic ‘take it or leave it’ vote
Pro-EU lawmakers later accused the government of going back on its word by offering only a symbolic “take it or leave it” vote on the final deal and not the ability to take control of the negotiations.
Labour Party Brexit spokesman Keir Starmer accused May of telling Parliament: “Tough luck. If you don’t like my proposed deal, you can have something much worse.”
The rebels sought to amend the flagship EU Withdrawal Bill so they could send the government back to the negotiating table if they don’t like the deal, or if talks with the EU break down.
The government claimed that would undermine its negotiating hand with the EU.
“You cannot enter a negotiation without the right to walk away,” Brexit Secretary David Davis told lawmakers. “If you do, it rapidly ceases to be a negotiation.”
But Davis also told lawmakers it would be for the Commons speaker to decide whether lawmakers could amend any motion on a Brexit deal that was put to the House of Commons.
The concession was enough to get Conservative lawmaker Dominic Grieve, a leader of the pro-EU rebel faction, to back down and say he would support the government.
Grieve said the government had acknowledged “the sovereignty of this place (Parliament) over the executive.”
Major hurdle cleared
Wednesday’s vote means the EU Withdrawal Bill - intended to replace thousands of EU rules and regulations with UK statute on the day Britain leaves the bloc - has cleared one of its last major hurdles to becoming law.
But the government faces more tumult in Parliament in the months to come over other pieces of Brexit legislation.
It has been two years since Britain voted by 52-48 percent to exit the 28-nation EU after four decades of membership, and there are eight months until the UK is due to leave the bloc on March 29, 2019.
But Britain - and its government - remains divided over Brexit, and EU leaders are frustrated with what they see as a lack of firm proposals from the U.K about future relations.
May’s government is divided between Brexit-backing ministers such as 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. Parliament is also divided between supporters of “hard” and “soft Brexit.
A paper setting out the UK government position on future relations, due to be published this month, has been delayed until July because the Cabinet cannot agree on a united stance.
The European Parliament’s leader on Brexit, Guy Verhofstadt, said on Wednesday that he remains hopeful a UK-EU withdrawal agreement could be finalized by the fall, so that national parliaments have time to approve it before March.
“The worst scenario for both parties is no deal,” he told a committee of British lawmakers. “The disruption that would create to the economy, not only on the continent but certainly in Britain, would be huge and that we have to avoid.”