U.K.'s May Faces Choice of Retreat or Defeat Over Brexit Law

(Bloomberg) -- U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May is facing another painful Brexit dilemma: cave in to rebels in her Conservative Party who want the power to veto the final Brexit deal, or face a potentially damaging defeat.

Tory lawmakers are lining up to defy May’s orders on Wednesday and vote for an amendment to her flagship law that paves the way for the U.K.’s exit from the European Union in 2019. They want Parliament to be given a “meaningful vote” on whether to accept the final Brexit treaty -- and are seeking to guarantee this in the text of the bill.

“Nobody voted in the referendum for our parliamentary democracy to be undermined,” said Labour member of Parliament Chuka Umunna. “We need scrutiny on Brexit, not a blank cheque for government ministers.”

With no automatic majority in the House of Commons, the premier is facing a potential defeat over the amendment, which is likely to be voted on in London on Wednesday.

A defeat or a retreat at this time would be a blow for May, who is fresh from securing a last-minute Brexit agreement on the terms of the divorce in Brussels last week. She heads back to the Belgian capital on Thursday where she’s expecting to be given the green light to open talks on the future trade relationship between Britain and the EU.

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Lawmakers from the Conservative Party, as well as the opposition Labour, Liberal Democrats, Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru signed a joint statement last weekend backing the call for Parliament to be given a meaningful vote on the final Brexit treaty.

Over 10,000 supporters of the Open Britain campaign also emailed their local member of Parliament urging them to support amendment number seven to the EU Withdrawal Bill.

Unless the rebels back down, May’s only realistic option for avoiding the showdown Wednesday is to give ground to the lawmakers who want a legal guarantee they will get a binding vote on the outcome of the U.K.’s negotiations with the EU.

There are signs her team is open to making concessions. Earlier in the week, May accepted another proposal to change the draft law in the face of criticism from her colleagues.

“We are listening to members of Parliament, we are having conversations with them,” May’s spokesman James Slack told reporters in London on Tuesday. “Where they think legislation can be improved we are prepared to take that on board.”

The amendment is being proposed by Dominic Grieve, the Conservative former attorney general, who said he would not be backing down. “I remain hopeful that the government will listen to what I’ve said, but failing that I’m prepared to push to a vote,” he told the Guardian newspaper Tuesday.

The main opposition Labour party is also prepared to whip its members to vote with Grieve, and against May.

After losing her majority in June’s election, May’s minority Conservative government is reliant on the votes of 10 lawmakers from Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party to pass laws in the Commons. A rebellion of just seven Tories would potentially be enough to defeat the prime minister.

If May loses a vote on the amendment on Wednesday, she could try to overturn it in later stages of the bill’s progress through Parliament. The bill must complete up to eight further parliamentary stages of scrutiny before it becomes law.

©2017 Bloomberg L.P.

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