LONDON • UK Prime Minister (PM) Theresa May (picture) has backed down in a key Brexit battle with Parliament, ditching moves to stop lawmakers trying to re-write her plans, according to an official.
The government had intended to try to prevent the House of Commons from changing the terms of May’s agreement with the European Union (EU) before politicians finally vote on it. But according to one official, speaking on condition of anonymity, May’s team have now dropped this tactic in the face of protests from politicians.
That means lawmakers will be free to vote on a series of potential changes to May’s motion, which could include calls for another referendum, or for a different deal with the EU. It’s a decision with potentially huge implications for the future direction of Brexit.
The fact that May is backtracking already ahead of the Dec 11 vote that suggests she knows she’s losing the battle with rebels in her own Conservative Party who want to tear up the agreement she’s reached with the EU.
Nearly 100 Conservative MPs have publicly committed to voting against the Brexit deal when it’s put to a vote.
The “Meaningful Vote” debate, as it’s become known, will take this form: Starting Tuesday, Dec 4, there will be five days of eight-hour debates, with a break from Dec 7-9. Each day’s debate will be led by a different Cabinet minister, focusing discussion on their brief. Voting will start at 7pm on Tuesday, Dec 11. The Commons will vote on a series of amendments to the government’s motion, likely to include calls for another referendum, or for the government to seek a customs union with the EU. Each vote will take around 15 minutes. Finally, the Commons will vote on the government’s motion, including any amendments that passed.
The plans were disclosed by a UK official who asked not to be identified, because the plans are private. Parliamentary business managers from the different parties are still hammering out the details of how the vote will be held, but the government’s aim is to produce a plan that its opponents, internal and external, can’t object to.
Officials believe that no alternative to May’s option will command a majority in the Commons either, and a series of votes on the amendments could demonstrate that. Labour members are likely to be ordered not to support a second referendum, for example.
If other options are indeed voted down, it will add force to May’s argument that hers is the only way to avoid crashing out of the EU with no deal.
The premier has embarked on a national campaign to convince voters and politicians that her deal is the best and only one available for delivering Brexit.
But many Conservatives object to the so-called “Irish backstop” section of May’s deal, because they argue it will tie the UK indefinitely to EU tariffs, undermining the country’s ability to strike free trade deals with allies around the world such as the US.
May’s team will focus in the days to come on persuading sceptical Tories that the plan isn’t, as some believe, a trap.
The official expected European leaders to make clear that, as May has repeatedly said, they too wish to avoid the UK being caught in the backstop.
The backstop is intended to ensure trade in goods continues freely across the UK’s politically sensitive border with Ireland after Brexit.