After rollercoaster week, May faces Brexit showdown
MPs in the House of Commons will vote on a string of amendments to a key piece of Brexit legislation that could force the government’s hand in the negotiations with the European Union.
Over 12 hours of debate on Tuesday and Wednesday, May will seek to overturn changes made by the unelected House of Lords to the EU (Withdrawal) Bill, which sets the legal framework for Brexit.
Flashpoints include proposals to increase the power of parliament to decide on the final Brexit deal, and others seeking to keep Britain closely aligned with the EU’s economy after it leaves the bloc.
May this weekend said the Lords had gone “far beyond” their scrutiny role in trying to amend the bill to “tie the government’s hands in the negotiations”, and urged MPs to overturn the changes.
The Conservative government is seeking to overturn 14 of the 15 Lords amendments and appears confident of success on most of them.
One in danger of not being overturned is the so-called meaningful vote amendment, which would give parliament the power to decide what to do if it rejects the final Brexit deal.
The government may also lose a vote on membership of the EU’s customs union, but this may not have much practical impact due to the way it is drafted.
Another on joining the European Economic Area (EEA) — the single market — will likely fall because the main opposition Labour party opposes it.
– Eurosceptics worried –
The very fact that such discussions are being held, however, is viewed by those who favour a “softer” Brexit that momentum is on their side.
They point out that talk of staying economically aligned to the EU was widely dismissed just a year ago.
Eurosceptics who want a clean break with the EU, in which Britain has its own independent trade policy free of European rules, are increasingly worried.
Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson was secretly recorded this week saying that while Brexit would happen, “the risk is that it will not be the one we want”.
He implied that May might not have the “guts” to be a tough negotiator with Brussels, and that US President Donald Trump may have done a better job.
Brexit Secretary David Davis also reportedly threatened to resign over plans to avoid customs checks between Northern Ireland and Ireland.
He objected to a fall-back plan that would see Britain remain aligned to EU customs rules if the problem could not be solved through a wider trade deal or with the use of technology.
Eurosceptics fear the so-called “backstop” would tie Britain to the bloc indefinitely, and May inserted a time-limit at Davis’s request — only for it to be swiftly knocked back by Brussels.
– May’s position ‘perilous’ –
As May presides over a divided government and country, and with no overall parliamentary majority, every part of the Brexit process has been bumpy.
But this week’s turmoil reflects an increasingly febrile atmosphere in Westminster, as pressure builds for a deal by October ahead of Britain’s withdrawal in March next year.
There is a sense among both eurosceptics and pro-Europeans that crunch time is fast approaching.
The Sunday Times newspaper reported that eurosceptics unhappy with May’s direction were considering trying to oust her once the EU (Withdrawal) Bill goes through parliament.
Pro-European MPs wary of destabilising the situation may hold their fire this week as a result.
They will have the opportunity to press the case for customs and single market membership in two other bills due in the Commons within weeks.
“The prime minister’s position is quite perilous at the moment, and it may be that people think, well, she’s got enough problems,” a Conservative MP said this week.
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