LONDON: Prime Minister Theresa May launched a momentous Brexit debate Tuesday after suffering a string of stinging rebukes from MPs that exposed her lack of support in parliament.
The House of Commons voted 311-293 to force the government to publish the full legal advice it received from the attorney general about the divorce deal May struck with the European Union last month.
The government had failed to publish the advice in full despite a resolution passed by MPs last month.
May’s critics believe the report is full of embarrassing details about Britain being forced to follow EU rules for years to come while having no say in its decisions.
Her government argues the prime minister has the right to receive legal advice in private, but after the latest parliamentary defeat promised to release the full tome on Wednesday ahead of next Tuesday’s contentious Brexit vote.
“This house has now spoken and it’s of huge constitutional and political signficance,” said opposition Labour Party member Keir Starmer.
Lawmakers also backed an amendment that will give them a bigger say in what happens if May’s deal is voted down — an outcome that looks likely.
It would let MPs draft a “Plan B” that May will face intense pressure to follow.
A defeat for the prime minister next week could trigger a no-confidence vote leading to early elections, leaving the Brexit process in utter chaos.
May faced these challenges and the ominous rumblings from disgruntled pro-Brexit members of her own party as she stepped before a packed and agitated session of parliament to kick off five days of intense debate.
“The only solution that will endure is one that addresses the concerns of those who voted ‘Leave’ while reassuring those who voted ‘Remain’,” May said.
“This argument has gone on long enough. It is corrosive to our politics and life depends on compromise.”
Her message of unity was interrupted repeatedly by heckling from both pro-EU and Brexit-backing lawmakers.
Opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn called May’s plan “a huge and damaging failure for Britain” that came from “two years of botched negotiations”.
– ‘Brexit shambles’ –
The pro-EU camp’s attempts to secure a second referendum on staying in the bloc meanwhile received a sudden boost from an opinion issued by a legal adviser to the European Court of Justice (ECJ).
Advocate General Campos Sanchez-Bordona said Britain had the right to halt the entire Brexit process without the agreement of other EU states.
“That possibility continues to exist until the withdrawal agreement is formally concluded,” he said.
The Scottish National Party’s pro-EU MP Alyn Smith proclaimed: “We now have a roadmap out of the Brexit shambles.”
But May warned that abandoning the negotiated plan “would take us back to square one”.
“We cannot afford to spend the next decade as a country going round in circles on the question of our relationship with the European Union,” she argued.
– Renegotiate Brexit? –
The vote next week has huge implications for the future of Britain, and that of May herself.
Left-wing Labour said a defeat for the prime minister would likely trigger a confidence vote to bring down her government.
She has also been constantly challenged by hardline eurosceptics in her own party and might face an internal leadership contest as well.
Hardline Conservative Brexiteers say May’s compromise deal does not represent enough of a break with Brussels.
The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) — the Northern Ireland party propping up May’s government — also objects to special provisions for the province.
The party voted against the government Tuesday, formalising a rupture with May’s Conservatives.
Many of May’s critics want her to go back to Brussels and negotiate a better deal — a prospect that EU leaders have ruled out.
– Divorce bill –
The EU Withdrawal Agreement covers a settlement of £39 billion (43.7 billion euros, $49.8 billion) that Britain will have to play for leaving.
It also sets out the rights of EU expatriates and plans for a post-Brexit transition period lasting to December 2020.
The extra time is intended to give both sides a chance to strike a new trade and security relationship.
Failure to do so would trigger a “backstop” arrangement that keeps Britain in an EU customs union — with Northern Ireland also following EU rules on regulation of goods.
May insists this is necessary to avoid border checks in Ireland. Opponents say it risks tying Britain to the EU for years to come.