UK Prime Minister in Brexit turmoil with Parliament majority slashed

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May. (Tolga Akmen, Pool, AFP)
Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May. (Tolga Akmen, Pool, AFP)

UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s ability to deliver Brexit was thrown into doubt as infighting in her Conservative Party left her with a perilously small majority, staggering from one vote to the next.

May’s majority was cut to just three votes after she adopted Brexiteer amendments to a key piece of customs legislation, and the proposals narrowly passed through the House of Commons late on Monday. The closeness of the ballots and the strength of feeling on both sides of her divided party underlined the scale of her task in getting the final Brexit deal she negotiates with the European Union through Parliament. 

A 10th member of her government quit on Monday in order to vote against her - this time in favour of a soft Brexit - and May needed the backing of three rebels from the opposition Labour Party to win. She faces more votes on Tuesday, including one on a proposal to send lawmakers on holiday early in what is seen as a tactic to avoid more plotting against her.

With her team split down the middle over how to handle the biggest issue facing the country, time is running out. She has just three months left before an October deadline to secure an exit deal ahead of the country’s formal departure in March.

‘Home to roost’

The rebellions are “a prelude to the big - and real - battle coming in the winter when the PM comes back with her deal and we know what the choice is. And whether she can continue,” Tory lawmaker George Freeman, who used to head May’s policy board, said in a posting on Instagram. “Brexit is coming home to roost. And it won’t be easy or pleasant.”

Monday night showed just how difficult it is for May to plot a course between pro- and anti-Brexit lawmakers in her party. Until this month, she managed this by avoiding taking a side. But on July 6, May came off the fence and proposed what’s become known as her “Chequers Plan,” which would keep the UK close to the EU after it has left, but outside the customs union.

For May, it was a least-worst option, aimed not so much as satisfying anyone but at giving something to everyone. But pro-Brexit Conservative lawmakers were outraged. Two cabinet ministers - Boris Johnson and David Davis - quit in protest, claiming May is failing to deliver the clean break from the EU the public voted for in the referendum.

They were followed by a series of more junior figures. When that didn’t persuade May to change course, the Brexiteers tabled a series of amendments to the Taxation Bill, covering the way tariffs can work after Brexit.

They were designed at least to tie May’s hands in negotiations with the EU, and according to some interpretations would kill the Chequers plan - named after her countryside retreat - altogether.

Faced with claims that up to 100 Tories would rebel in favor of these amendments, May’s office announced the government would accept them all, arguing that they weren’t out of line with her policy.

Pendulum swings back

But in seeing off one rebellion, the prime minister provoked another. On Monday night, 14 Tories who want to stay close to the EU voted against the government. They included defense minister Guto Bebb, who quit his post in order to rebel. He’s the 10th member of May’s government to stand down in protest since she finalized her Brexit plan, but the first to do so in the cause of a softer split from the EU.

Because other lawmakers were absent, May survived the vote. But the rebels exceeded the seven it would take to defeat the government if all opposition parties also voted against it.

Tuesday will see more votes on her Brexit plans, this time on her Trade Bill. Among the potential flashpoints are anti-government amendments designed to keep the UK inside a formal customs union with the EU.

A head of steam is clearly building among anti-Brexit Tories. Former cabinet minister Nicky Morgan told an event in central London that she was “very, very angry” about the government giving in to Conservative euroskeptics.

‘Sacrificing bobs’

In the Monday debates, Tory Anna Soubry accused Brexiters of sacrificing jobs in the interests of leaving the EU at any cost. “What they have said in those private conversations is that the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs will be worth it to regain our country’s sovereignty,” she said. “You tell that to the people of my constituency.”

Meanwhile the Electoral Commission announced it was fining Vote Leave, the official pro-Brexit campaign in the 2016 referendum, for breaching spending limits and refusing to cooperate with its investigation. It found that the campaign broke spending rules by channeling funds through smaller group. Vote Leave has denied wrongdoing.

The commission also said Vote Leave had refused requests for interviews, contradicting Vote Leave’s chief executive Matthew Elliott - who has said the commission refused to interview anyone in his organization during the probe.

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