Tory Rebels See Johnson Freedom as License to Defy May on Brexit

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Rebel U.K. lawmakers in Theresa May’s Conservative Party feel emboldened to vote against the prime minister’s flagship Brexit legislation. They think she’s given Boris Johnson a pass on another key vote.

After the government announced plans to build a third runway at London’s Heathrow airport, the assumption in Parliament is that May’s foreign secretary and the capital’s former mayor will be allowed to miss a vote on it. Why? He once said “lie down in front of the bulldozers” and she really needs him.

That would leave rebel lawmakers feeling liberated to defy May when the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill returns to the House of Commons on June 12, two Tory lawmakers said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The prime minister is seeking to overturn 15 amendments added by the House of Lords that mostly seek to soften the U.K.’s departure from the EU, and the votes are likely to bring her party’s competing factions into open conflict.

Ministers typically abide by the principle of collective responsibility, meaning that Johnson -- whose west London district of Uxbridge faces air and noise pollution from the planned Heathrow expansion -- would be expected to resign if he felt unable to back government policy.

May’s spokesman, James Slack, said ministers would be allowed to voice their “long-standing views on the subject” but wouldn’t be permitted to “actively campaign” against the plan. The government has also put a “three-line whip” on the vote, meaning all Conservatives are expected to attend.

Foreign Trip?

Even so, the widespread belief among lawmakers was that Johnson will be overseas when the vote is called -- either with May’s approval or in open defiance of her. Both Johnson’s and May’s office declined to comment when asked if the foreign secretary would be there.

But one of the Tory lawmakers, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that if collective responsibility was broken on the Heathrow vote, the government could not expect it to apply it to its Brexit legislation.

Speaking separately, a Tory lawmaker who intends to rebel, said anti-Brexit members of Parliament from all parties were in discussions about how to defeat the government. The most difficult votes for May are likely to be around the issue of the EU’s customs union, the Northern Ireland border, and what sort of vote Parliament should get on the final deal.

Lawmakers are swapping jokes about bringing in sleeping bags for next Tuesday’s marathon debate on Brexit, which could see a debate starting at 12.30 p.m. and run to the early hours of the next morning.

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