UK Parliament, government face off in Brexit showdown

Published 06.12.2018 00:00
Updated 06.12.2018 08:00

Britain's Brexit debate has become a bruising battle between lawmakers and Prime Minister Theresa May's government. PM May returned to the House of Commons yesterday after a series of stunning defeats by MPs that threaten her government and could change the course of Brexit.

British Parliament dealt May's government two bruising defeats yesterday, and that was before lawmakers began an epic debate that will decide the fate of May's European Union divorce deal and her political career. Opening five days of debate on the Brexit agreement, May said that since the British people voted in 2016 to leave the EU, it was the "duty of this Parliament to deliver on the result" of the referendum.

Despite her entreaties, the government appeared to be on a collision course with an increasingly assertive Parliament. Minutes before May rose to speak, lawmakers delivered a historic rebuke, finding her Conservative government in contempt of Parliament for refusing to publish the advice it had received from the country's top law officer about the Brexit deal. The reprimand, while largely symbolic, marks the first time a British government has been found in contempt of Parliament. The 311-293 vote demonstrated the fragility of May's government, which does not have a majority in Parliament. The Northern Irish party, on which the prime minister relies for support in parliament, sided with the main opposition Labor party on the contempt vote, raising serious questions about her ability to govern.

In another sign of the government's weakness, lawmakers also passed an amendment giving Parliament more say over the government's next steps if the assembly rejects the divorce deal in a vote set for Dec. 11.

The deal, endorsed last month by the 27 other EU leaders, lays out the terms of Britain's departure from the bloc on March 29 and sets the framework for future relations with the EU. Rejecting it would leave the U.K. facing the prospect of a chaotic "no-deal" Brexit, but May's chances of winning majority backing for the deal appear slim.

Politicians on both sides of Britain's EU membership debate oppose the agreement — pro-Brexit legislators because it keeps Britain bound closely to the EU, and pro-EU politicians because it erects barriers between the U.K. and its biggest trading partner.

Leaving the EU without a deal would end more than 40 years of free trade and disrupt the flow of goods and services between Britain and the EU. The Bank of England says a no-deal Brexit could plunge Britain into a severe recession, with the value of the pound falling by 25 percent as unemployment and inflation soared.

Pro-EU lawmakers said Tuesday they had made the prospect of a "no-deal" Brexit less likely by securing the amendment giving Parliament more power to guide the government's next steps if the deal is rejected.

If the agreement doesn't win approval, the government is required to come back within 21 days and say what it plans to do. The amendment, which also was backed by two dozen Conservative lawmakers, stipulates that Parliament can change the government's statement — effectively telling the government what to do. Since most lawmakers oppose a no-deal Brexit, they could essentially take that option off the table.

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