LONDON (Reuters) – British Prime Minister Theresa May faces a showdown on Tuesday with MPs who want power to force her government to go back to the negotiating table if they reject a Brexit deal, testing her plans for leaving the European Union.
Officials from May’s Conservative Party have been lobbying MPs to reject amendments handed down from the upper house of parliament on her Brexit blueprint, the EU withdrawal bill, saying they would undermine Britain’s negotiating stance.
On Tuesday, parliament will debate a demand for a “meaningful vote” on any agreement May negotiates with Brussels before leaving the bloc next March.
Hours before the debate started, a justice minister who has long been critical of the handling of Brexit, resigned in protest at what he called the government’s “wish to limit” the role of MPs in shaping Brexit and said he would vote against the prime minister.
May and her ministers renewed appeals for unity over the “meaningful vote”, after the government appeared to have secured a compromise to quell a potential rebellion on Wednesday over Britain’s trading ties with the EU.
“The prime minister said that the votes were important in terms of the message they send to Brussels,” May’s spokesman said she told her cabinet team of ministers.
“She said that anything which undermines the government at home would make the negotiations with the EU more difficult.”
The government is most vulnerable on the issue of a “meaningful vote”. An amendment approved by the House of Lords, the upper house, could mean sending May back into negotiations with the EU just months before Britain is due to leave if MPs reject a Brexit deal.
Brexit minister David Davis warned MPs the government would never allow them to reverse Brexit.
“Whatever we do, we’re not going to reverse that,” Davis told BBC radio. “A meaningful vote is not the ability to reverse the decision of the referendum.”
May, who lost her party’s majority at an ill-judged election last year, made a last-ditch appeal to MPs on Monday and Davis sent a letter making the same case – vote against the government and risk tying Britain’s hands in the Brexit talks.
The government has also tried to stem rebellions by offering its own options – on the “meaningful vote”, it has proposed a 28-day breathing space if parliament rejects a Brexit deal. Within that period, the government would have to make a statement on its plans.
It is not clear whether that will win over potential rebels.
Senior pro-EU Conservative lawmaker Dominic Grieve proposed his own competing amendment which could force ministers to hand over control of its Brexit strategy to parliament if there is no deal by mid-February. The government said it would not support that amendment.
“We are asking members of parliament to abide by the referendum result, our manifesto commitment and to back our country,” Andrew Bridgen, Conservative lawmaker and Brexit campaigner, told Reuters. “It’s not difficult.”
But the resignation by Phillip Lee underlined the deep rifts in the party over Brexit that makes such votes anything but easy.
The “meaningful vote” will be the first major test after the House of Lords introduced 15 changes to the bill, trying to reshape the government’s approach to Brexit by encouraging MPs to press for the closest possible ties.
On Tuesday, parliament will also debate other amendments, including a challenge to the government’s plan to put March 29, 2019, or ‘Brexit Day’, into law and an attempt to toughen a commitment to ensure a frictionless border between Northern Ireland and the neighbouring Irish Republic, which will remain in the EU.
On Wednesday, parliament will consider a challenge to her commitment to leave the EU’s single market and customs union, which will transform Britain’s future trading relationships for many years to come.
If May is defeated in the House of Commons it will be yet another blow to a prime minister whose authority has been challenged several times since last year’s election. She now relies on the support of a small Northern Irish party.
To try to ensure the government wins, ministers and other MPs have been told to make sure they will be in parliament for the votes.
“There have been lots of meetings, we are keen to engage with all members of the parliamentary party,” May’s spokesman said. “And I imagine that there will be (more).”
Additional reporting by Michael Holden; Editing by Janet Lawrence