May to let Parliament debate Brexit strategy

But she stops short of pledging a formal vote on triggering formal procedure to exit EU

British Prime Minister Theresa May as she speaks during Prime Minister's Questions (PMQs) in the House of Commons in London on Oct 12, 2016.
British Prime Minister Theresa May as she speaks during Prime Minister's Questions (PMQs) in the House of Commons in London on Oct 12, 2016. PHOTO: AFP

LONDON • British Prime Minister Theresa May has agreed to demands for Parliament to debate her government's plans to leave the European Union (EU), but ruled out letting it vote on triggering the formal Brexit procedure.

Mrs May moved to appease some lawmakers in her ruling Conservative Party by allowing a motion proposed by the opposition Labour Party for a "full and transparent debate" on how the government will enact the public vote to leave the EU.

The move on Tuesday spurred the sterling, which has fallen 18 per cent against the US dollar since the June referendum, with investors concerned that Britain is heading for a so-called "hard Brexit", or a clean break from the bloc's lucrative single market of 500 million consumers in order to control immigration.

But Mrs May, under pressure from Labour, other lawmakers and global financial markets to offer them more than her catchphrase of "Brexit means Brexit", stopped short of promising a formal vote on her strategy before triggering Article 50 of the EU's Lisbon Treaty.

"We've always said that Parliament has an important role to play," her spokesman said yesterday. "But we also believe this should be done in a way that respects the decision of the people of the UK when they voted to leave the EU on June 23 and does not undermine the negotiating position of the government. There will not be a vote on triggering Article 50."

Increasingly conscious that markets are moving on her words, Mrs May was clear in Parliament that she would be "ambitious" in negotiations with the other 27 EU members to get the best deal. "And that will include the maximum possible access to the European market for firms to trade with and operate within," she said, a statement which helped the sterling gain about a quarter of a cent against the dollar.

Mrs May has come under pressure to break with her policy of refusing to give a"running commentary".

Lawmakers said that by refusing to debate her strategy, she is undermining Britain's centuries-old democracy. Mrs May said she does not want to show her hand before starting some of the most complex negotiations London will be undertaking.

"I and many others did not exercise our vote in the referendum so as to restore the sovereignty of this Parliament only to see what we regarded as the tyranny of the European Union replaced by that of a government," Mr Stephen Phillips, a Conservative lawmaker who voted to leave, told the Guardian newspaper.

The Labour lawmakers' motion called for a full debate on the government's plan to leave the EU and demanded the Chamber be "able properly to scrutinise that plan for leaving the EU before Article 50 is invoked".

"The idea that Parliament somehow wasn't going to be able to discuss, debate, question... was frankly completely wrong," said Mrs May, when asked by a Labour lawmaker if Parliament would get a vote on the government's Brexit plan.

She has defended her "prerogative" to trigger the departure without parliamentary approval. Her government will defend that position at London's High Court today, when a legal challenge led by a pro-EU investment fund manager will begin.

Mrs May has given little away on her negotiating strategy, signalling that she wanted to return sovereignty to Britain, reduce immigration but also have the best possible deal for businesses and trade.



A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 13, 2016, with the headline 'May to let Parliament debate Brexit strategy'. Subscribe