Theresa May triggers Brexit showdown in Parliament

Updated: 05 December, 2018 13:17 IST | PTI | London

The marathon debate is set to last five days before a crunch vote on the Withdrawal Agreement struck with the European Union on December 11

Theresa May
Theresa May

British Prime Minister Theresa May on Tuesday opened a debate in the House of Commons on her Brexit deal, setting the stage for a showdown with MPs across party lines opposed to the proposals on offer. The marathon debate is set to last five days before a crunch vote on the Withdrawal Agreement struck with the European Union on December 11.

An embattled May has been combatting pressure from different sides of the House, including the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) which props up her Conservative Party government by providing crucial 10 MPs for a majority in the Commons. The deal negotiated by her and the EU has to be backed by a majority of MPs if it is to come into force. "No backstop means no deal," she told MPs in her opening statement in the Commons, in reference to the most contentious aspect of the Withdrawal Agreement which some fear will keep the UK within an EU-wide Customs Union even after Brexit.

"The backstop is not a trick to trap us in the EU," she said, in an obvious attempt to sway members of her own party who have been voicing concerns over the issue. While the prospects of her deal passing through Parliament remain in doubt, her ministers faced a rare a contempt-of-Parliament challenge over its decision not to release the full legal advice on the Brexit deal. The government suffered a bruising defeat on the motion, forcing it to publish the advice in coming days. Attorney General Geoffrey Cox had published an overview on Monday but Opposition parties say that by limiting the information released, ministers ignored a binding Commons vote demanding they release the full advice.

"It's about parliamentary democracy and guaranteeing that MPs have the information they need to know -- precisely what the government has negotiated with the European Union," said Labour's shadow Brexit secretary, Sir Keir Starmer. The issue triggered a back and forth between the government and the Parliament's Privileges Committee, causing further Brexit related chaos in Parliament as MPs questioned government ministers over the issue in the Commons on Tuesday.

Many believe May's deal is flawed because of a "backstop" that could keep the UK tied to EU customs rules in the event no future trade deal can be agreed. The demands for the publication of the full legal advice is the only way seen as a definitive way to establish whether that would in fact be the case. Both Leave and Remain wings of May's own party are opposed to the current deal, claiming that a better agreement can be negotiated or that the public should have the final say in a referendum.

A petition calling for a so-called "People's Vote", or another referendum, if Parliament rejects the Brexit deal has attracted nearly 92,000 signatures, just shy of the 100,000 needed for Parliament to consider the issue for a debate. Meanwhile, in what came as a welcome boost to anti-Brexiteers, the European Court of Justice's (ECJ) advocate general on Tuesday confirmed that the UK would be legally able to stop Brexit unilaterally.

In a written statement, the ECJ said Campos Sanchez-Bordona's legal opinion was that if a country decided to leave the EU, it should also have the power to change its mind during the two-year exit process specified in Article 50 of the EU treaty. And it should be able to do so without needing the consent of the other 27 member states. It has been pounced upon as the proof required to counter arguments that the process would be difficult to reverse, even if Britain was to change its mind over Brexit. While the advocate general's opinions are not binding, the ECJ tends to follow them in the majority of its final rulings.

The anti-Brexit politicians and campaigners who had brought the case in the ECJ hope it will give MPs an extra option when considering whether to approve May's draft deal or not, because it could keep alive the prospect of calling off Brexit - potentially through another referendum. With the battle lines now drawn, May has entered one of her most challenging weeks in power as she will seek to convince MPs on all sides that the deal she has secured is the best possible one for the country to deliver on the public verdict in favour of Brexit in the June 2016 referendum. "To deliver on that vote, we need to deliver a Brexit that respects the decision of the British people - a Brexit that takes back control of our borders, laws and money," she has repeatedly said. "This is the deal that delivers for the British people," she insists.

The Conservative Party chief whip, Julian Smith, who is responsible for getting party MPs in line during a government vote in Parliament has stressed that he remains confident May's Brexit deal will pass through the House of Commons next week. However, with just a week to go for the crucial vote next Tuesday, the outcome remains uncertain with many wondering if the British PM can really pull off what looks like an impossible situation. Britain is scheduled to leave the EU on March 29 next year under the Article 50 process set in motion after the referendum over two years ago. Under the deal struck by the British prime minister with the EU, the UK would be able to negotiate trade deals with other countries, including India, during the transition period after Brexit day, but would not be able to implement them until the end of the planned 21-month transition period, which itself could be extended.

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First Published: 05 December, 2018 11:47 IST

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