The British parliament will hold five days of debate on the prime minister's Brexit deal
London (AFP) - Impassioned UK MPs debated Brexit late into Tuesday night after delivering two stinging defeats to Prime Minister Theresa May that exposed her lack of support in parliament.
It marked a tumultuous start to a momentous week that will conclude next Tuesday with a vote on May’s plan for unwinding Britain’s 46-year participation in the grand European project.
The House of Commons first voted 311-293 to censure the government for not publishing the full legal advice it received about May’s divorce deal with the European Union.
May’s critics believe the attorney general’s report is full of embarrassing details about Britain being forced to follow EU rules for years to come while having no say in its decisions.
The government argued that May had a right to get private counsel and refused to publish the entire text despite a resolution from parliament.
The embarrassing loss saw it reverse course and promise to release the full tome on Wednesday.
“This house has now spoken and it’s of huge constitutional and political significance,” said opposition Labour Party member Keir Starmer.
Lawmakers also backed an amendment that will give them a bigger say in what happens if May’s deal is voted down – an outcome that looks likely.
It would let MPs draft a “Plan B” that May will face intense political pressure to follow.
The government’s defeat next week could also trigger a no-confidence vote that forces early elections and leaves Brexit in chaos just three months before the March 29 deadline.
May faced these challenges and the ominous rumblings from disgruntled pro-Brexit members of her own party as she stepped before a packed session of parliament to kick off five days of intense debates.
“The only solution that will endure is one that addresses the concerns of those who voted ‘Leave’ while reassuring those who voted ‘Remain’,” May said.
“This argument has gone on long enough. It is corrosive to our politics and life depends on compromise.”
Theresa May has been challenged over Brexit by hardline eurosceptics in her own party
- ‘De facto colony’ -
Her message of unity was interrupted repeatedly by heckling from both pro-EU and Brexit-backing MPs.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn called May’s plan “a huge and damaging failure for Britain” that came from “two years of botched negotiations”.
“To vote for this deal would be to damage our economy, to make our constituents poorer and to take a leap in the dark for the future of this country,” said Corbyn.
And former foreign minister Boris Johnson – an ardent Brexit supporter with an eye on May’s job – warned that Britain threatened to become the EU’s “de facto colony”.
“It is a paint and plaster pseudo-Brexit and beneath the camouflage we find the same old EU institutions,” Johnson said.
- ‘Brexit shambles’ -
The pro-EU camp’s longstanding bid to secure a second referendum on staying in the bloc received a sudden boost from an opinion issued by a legal adviser to the European Court of Justice (ECJ).
Advocate General Campos Sanchez-Bordona said London had the right to halt the entire Brexit process without the agreement of other EU states.
“That possibility continues to exist until the withdrawal agreement is formally concluded,” he said.
The EU supporting Scottish National Party’s MP Alyn Smith proclaimed: “We now have a roadmap out of the Brexit shambles.”
Brexit timeline, 2016-2020
But May warned that another Brexit vote “would take us back to square one” and do nothing to settle bitter debates about Britain’s place in Europe.
“We cannot afford to spend the next decade as a country going round in circles on the question of our relationship with the European Union,” she argued.
- ‘Misjudged mood of country’ -
May is charging ahead in the face of resistance from MPs who represent various political camps and who all hate her plan for their own reasons.
Left-wing Labour wants to use to prime minister’s Brexit vote defeat to trigger a confidence vote to bring down her government.
She has also been constantly challenged by hardline eurosceptics in her own party and might face an internal leadership contest as well.
The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) – the Northern Ireland party propping up May’s government – also objects to special provisions for the British province.
DUP formalised its rupture with May’s Conservative Party by voting against the government on Tuesday.
“We’re sad about this, I deeply regret it,” the party’s parliamentary leader Nigel Dodds said.
“I admire the prime minister, her stamina, her resilience, the work that she’s doing – but on this I think she has misjudged the mood of the country and the mood of the House.”