Theresa May narrowly avoided the embarrassment of losing a vote in parliament on the bill to leave the European Union on Tuesday.
A number of Conservative backbenchers were bracing to break ranks and vote in favour of an amendment introduced by the House of Lords – the second chamber of the British parliament – that would give MPs the right to reject any Brexit deal secured by the government.
Adding pressure on Theresa May’s government, her junior Minister of Justice, Philip Lee, submitted his resignation, making clear that he was prepared to abstain rather than support his government’s position against the amendment.
By Tuesday evening, May was able to avoid a backbench parliamentary revolt, conceding that if her government fails to secure a Brexit deal by November 30, 2018, she will return to the House that will decide “what happens next.”
Last year Lee pressed the government to release an economic impact assessment of a hard Brexit put together by the civil service. The Secretary for Leaving the European Union, David Davies, opposed the publication of the study, first on the grounds that this would undermine London’s negotiating position in Brussels and then on the grounds that the “impact assessment” was not in fact “an impact assessment” but mainly a projection.
On Tuesday morning, David Davies told the BBC that the parliament should not have the right to “reverse Brexit,” maintaining that the government alone should have the prerogative to interpret the referendum vote. “Reverse” in this context means opting for a Brexit that does not entail leaving the Customs Union and the Single Market, even at the cost of failing to avoid a border in Ireland.
During the debate, a number of MPs pointed to the contradiction of fighting to gain back control of parliamentary sovereignty, whilst denying the principle that MPs are the final arbiters of the popular vote.
The British prime minister was forced to accept the offer extended by one of her backbenchers, Dominic Grieve, to avoid the embarrassing prospect of an outright defeat for the cabinet.
Indeed, the government narrowly defeated the amendment by 324 to 298; there were still two Conservative defections, namely those of Ken Clarke and Anna Soubry. However, six Labour hardline Brexit supporters broke ranks with the opposition to vote with the government,
On Wednesday the British parliament will vote on an amendment by the House of Lords requiring the House of Commons to explore remaining part of the European Economic Area (EEA), an option often referred to as “the Norway model.” That amendment is likely to fail, as it has no backing by Labour opposition.
It is hard to see whether this was an unexpected victory for Theresa May. Her commitment to her backbenchers is a promise rather than a legal obligation, which she may negate, or may not be able to fulfil if she is not the prime minister at the time.