May defeats final Brexit challenges in parliament

Theresa May's EU withdrawal bill survived a second day of voting. [Photograph © UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor]

Prime Minister Theresa May defeated the final challenges to her EU Withdrawal Bill in parliament on Wednesday (13 June) after 48 hours of drama in Westminster.

Lawmakers supported the government’s position to reject amendments to the EU withdrawal bill that challenged May’s commitment to leave the bloc’s customs union and single market, leaving the overall shape of her Brexit strategy intact.

Parliament voted 325 to 298 to reject a House of Lords amendment to require ministers to report on their efforts in negotiations to secure a customs union.

They also voted against remaining in the European Economic Area (EEA), which offers tariff-free access to the EU’s single market in return for accepting the EU’s four freedoms, by 327 to 126.

Britain’s future trading and customs arrangements after Brexit have become a lightning rod for divisions that have plagued May’s Conservative Party and the opposition Labour Party.

May had faced the prospect of losing the vote on the customs union after rebels had indicated their support for a change introduced by the House of Lords to require ministers to report what efforts they had made to secure a customs union.

But a government proposal to instead report its efforts to secure a customs “arrangement” seems to have been enough to postpone a more searching debate about government policy, with future debates the more likely stage for a revolt.

Before the vote, she assured lawmakers she would honour her promise and deal with the “concerns raised about the role of parliament in relation to the Brexit process”.

That won over most of the rebels, but was openly mocked by Ken Clarke, a veteran Conservative, who accused the government of using “pathetic” jargon which was “utterly meaningless”.

Some rebels say they will challenge her plans to leave the customs union again during votes on other bills, on trade and customs, in the coming weeks.

However, it was in the opposition Labour Party where the deepest rifts were exposed on Wednesday. Many of its pro-EU lawmakers went against their leader, Jeremy Corbyn, by supporting EEA membership and not his amendment which argued for a new single market deal with the EU.

Before the vote on the Labour amendment, which the party lost by 322 to 240, lawmaker Laura Smith resigned from her junior role in the team “shadowing” the cabinet office and four others left their roles as parliamentary private secretaries.

Labour’s rebels, many of whom have long criticised Corbyn for his weak support of the EU, were unapologetic.

“This is the moment when we have to tell each other the truth,” said Hilary Benn, the Labour MP who chairs the Parliament’s Exiting the EU committee, and who voted for the EEA motion. “There are choices that we face, there are trade- offs that we have to accept.”

But the drama was not confined to the two main parties. The Scottish National Party, which governs in Scotland, staged a walk-out from Parliament during questions to Theresa May on Wednesday lunchtime, in protest at the lack of time given to debate the effect of Brexit on devolved matters.

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