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Facing defeat on Brexit, Theresa May gives ground to UK’s Parliament

Tuesday started poorly for British Prime Minister Theresa May, then it got steadily worse.
Boris Grdanoski/Associated Press/File 2018
Tuesday started poorly for British Prime Minister Theresa May, then it got steadily worse.

NEW YORK — Britain’s prime minister, Theresa May, on Tuesday promised greater control for Parliament over withdrawal from the European Union, after a threatened rebellion by lawmakers forced her into a new and potentially significant retreat in the country’s troubled exit from the bloc.

The day began on an ominous note with the resignation of one of May’s ministers over her plans for withdrawal, known as Brexit, and got steadily worse for the prime minister when some of her rebel lawmakers combined with opposition parties, posing the threat of a damaging defeat.

The vote concerned an amendment that had been added by the House of Lords to May’s main Brexit legislation. The amendment would have given lawmakers more control over the process by, among other considerations, avoiding a last-minute, take-it-or-leave-it vote on whatever package the government negotiated with Brussels.

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May had appealed to lawmakers not to support the amendment, arguing that it would weaken her negotiating hand with the European Union. Ultimately, they were placated by promises of a timely vote and adherence to some of the technical guarantees demanded by a Conservative rebel, Dominic Grieve, about what happens if a Brexit deal proves to be unacceptable to Parliament.

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The retreat is only the latest setback for May who last week averted the resignation of her Brexit secretary, David Davis, then faced criticism in leaked comments from her foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, who accused her government of lacking “guts.”

All this is before May meets other EU leaders at a summit this month for talks that are likely to be difficult.

There were warning signs for the government Tuesday morning when Phillip Lee resigned his post as a junior justice minister, saying that Parliament was being sidelined and that he could not support “how our country’s exit from the EU looks set to be delivered.”

The way the withdrawal was being pursued was “detrimental to the people we are elected to serve,” added Lee, who will remain a lawmaker.

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Since losing her parliamentary majority last year, May has been forced to adjudicate between warring factions within her Conservative Party, something that has led her to postpone a number of important decisions.

As a consequence, almost two years after the 2016 referendum that mandated British withdrawal, the British government has been unable to outline what type of economic relationship it wants with the European Union, which is its biggest trading partner.

May’s Cabinet is split between those who want to keep close ties, in order to protect the economy, and hard-line Brexit supporters who want to cut free in the hope of striking trade deals further afield.

A fierce dispute has also broken out over a British contingency plan to prevent the imposition of border checks between Northern Ireland, part of the United Kingdom, and Ireland which will remain in the European Union.

This idea would involve keeping many European trade rules until technology — like tracking devices or online customs declarations — is ready that would eliminate the need for border checks. Some Brexit supporters fear that it could keep Britain tied indefinitely into Europe’s regulatory system.

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On Tuesday, the pro-Brexit Conservative lawmaker Edward Leigh warned that defeating May on the Lords amendment “would be a catastrophe for the government,” whose opponents, he said, want to “create a situation in which the whole process is frustrated.”

Grieve, one of the Conservative rebels, told lawmakers that “the irrationality of the debate we are having on the details of Brexit is truly chilling.”