Theresa May suffers humiliating loss on Brexit law

VIDEO: REUTERS
Lawmakers voted 309 to 305 to change the government's bill so that it guarantees Parliament will get a "meaningful vote" on the final Brexit deal at the end of negotiations in 2019.
Lawmakers voted 309 to 305 to change the government's bill so that it guarantees Parliament will get a "meaningful vote" on the final Brexit deal at the end of negotiations in 2019.PHOTO: AFP

LONDON (BLOOMBERG) - British Prime Minister Theresa May suffered a serious defeat for her key Brexit law on Wednesday (Dec 13) after pro-European lawmakers in her own party defied her orders in a vote in Parliament.

Lawmakers voted 309 to 305 to change the government's Bill so that it guarantees Parliament will get a "meaningful vote" on the final Brexit deal at the end of negotiations in 2019.

It's an embarrassing setback for May the day before she heads to a European summit that was set to be a celebration of the breakthrough deal she clinched last week. It also raises questions about whether she can muster in Parliament a majority that backs her vision of Brexit. 

Lawmakers in London will now have the power to veto the withdrawal treaty before the UK leaves the EU if they do not like the terms of the agreement. Another rebellion looms next week over an amendment that could attract even more rebel backing.

It's a blow to May's authority, after she made a personal plea in Parliament for colleagues to support her. Ministers spent the day proposing concessions aimed at buying off rebels, including a last-minute offer to come back with a new text. That was met with cries of "too late" in the chamber.

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"Theresa May stays but she stays in a very weak position. She can't control a significant portion of her own parliamentary party," said Wyn Grant, professor of politics at Warwick University.

"It gives Remainers greater confidence and pushes the possibility of a no-deal scenario even further away. It's the final blow for that kind of scenario." The pound pared earlier gains after the vote.

The amendment was put forward by former Attorney-General Dominic Grieve, a hitherto loyal Conservative with impeccable establishment credentials - and a fierce grip on bureaucratic detail. He also used to be a Cabinet colleague of May. He argued the Bill gave the government too much power and shut Parliament out.

"It stops the government doing something the government should not be doing," Grieve said. He also rejected the government's last-ditch effort to placate rebels as too late.

No Blank Cheque

The government's Bill would otherwise give May "a blank cheque" to take Britain out of the EU on terms that are not yet clear, he said.

The Conservative Party has long been divided over Europe and the referendum on Brexit in some way aimed to settle the argument for good. Instead, it's more divided than ever, with some of those who campaigned for Remain taking the government to task on a regular basis.

May lost her parliamentary majority in June, making her more vulnerable to rebellions by lawmakers who reject her policy of seeking a clean break with Europe and leaving its single market and customs union. The rebels have made common cause with some lawmakers in the Labour Party and the cross-party camaraderie was unusual on Wednesday.

The group of rebels was branded the "mutineers" by the Brexit-backing Daily Telegraph - in a front page splash with all their photos - a move that if anything emboldened them.

Stand up

"Voting against my government saddens me greatly but Parliament has to stand up for itself and take control of the EU withdrawal process and that is why I supported Parliament having a meaningful final vote," Nicky Morgan, a former minister who's now a high-profile Brexit rebel, told Bloomberg.

Labour wasted no time in taking advantage of the result, which came after a knife-edge vote.

"This defeat is a humiliating loss of authority for the government on the eve of the European Council meeting," Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said.

May had argued that the amendment would threaten the "orderly and smooth" Brexit she wants.

She promised that lawmakers would be given a vote on the final deal before it's too late but stopped short of writing her commitment into the text of the draft law - the key demand of the rebels seeking to soften her Brexit stance.