Prime Minister Theresa May’s government agreed today to give lawmakers a vote on the final Brexit deal before it is concluded with Brussels – but warned they could not stop Britain leaving the EU. The concession avoided a rebellion in May’s ruling Conservative party over a bill empowering the prime minister to start formal exit negotiations, a move she has promised to make by the end of March.
The government warned however that if parliament rejected the terms of the final deal, including any agreement on a new trading relationship with the EU, Britain would still leave the bloc. “This will be a meaningful vote. It will be a choice between leaving the European Union with a negotiated deal or not,” Brexit minister David Jones told the House of Commons.
May had previously promised a vote in parliament before the deal comes into force, but conceded this would now take place before it was concluded – a key demand from many pro-European lawmakers. However, she refused to accept an amendment that would have enshrined this concession into law, and this evening, MPs rejected it by 326 votes to 293. Seven members of May’s Conservative party rebelled – fewer than expected.
The two-clause bill now looks likely to clear the Commons without too much trouble at the end of its debate stage tomorrow, when it will head to the House of Lords to be approved by peers. The formal EU exit process will start when the government triggers Article 50 of the bloc’s Lisbon Treaty, which allows for just two years of negotiations before Britain becomes the first country to leave the European Union, with or without a deal.
Some MPs had argued that parliament should be able to vote against the deal obtained by the government, and force ministers to seek a better one. But Jones rejected this idea, warning: “To send the government back to the negotiating table would be the surest way of undermining our negotiating position and delivering a worse deal.” He also noted that Britain would need the agreement of the other 27 EU member states to extend the two-year timetable.