LONDON (Reuters) – Britain’s Brexit minister told parliament on Tuesday to back down in a showdown over Prime Minister Theresa May’s plans to leave the European Union, warning lawmakers they could undermine negotiations.
Lawmakers kicked off two days of debate on Tuesday on changes to May’s Brexit blueprint, or EU withdrawal bill, after the upper house of parliament, the House of Lords, introduced 15 changes.
The strained parliament session underlined deep divisions over Britain’s EU exit.
The main point of contention between those who want to keep the closest possible ties with the EU and those who aim for a clean break is a demand to give parliament a “meaningful vote” on any agreement May negotiates with Brussels.
Hours before the debate began, a justice minister resigned in protest at what he called its “wish to limit” the role of parliament in shaping Brexit. He said he would vote against the prime minister.
Brexit minister David Davis told parliament if it rejected the government’s compromise on the “meaningful vote” and backed the House of Lords amendment: “What it actually amounts to is an unconstitutional shift which risks undermining our negotiation with the European Union.”
Some lawmakers tried to shout him down and accused the government of wanting too much power.
“The government cannot demonstrate the flexibility necessary for a successful deal if its hands are tied midway through that process,” Davis said.
But just an hour before the vote, due at around 1500 GMT, the government sought to compromise with senior pro-EU Conservative lawmaker Dominic Grieve, who had put forward his own amendment, which increased the risk of a government defeat.
The vote on Tuesday is the first of two days of debate that will test May’s authority and her plans for leaving the EU.
In a highly charged atmosphere in parliament, lawmakers who oppose the government said they had received death threats and brandished a copy of one of Britain’s tabloid newspapers, the Daily Express, which ran a headline saying: “Ignore the will of the people at your peril”.
Britons voted 52 percent to 48 percent in favor of leaving the EU in a June 2016 referendum.
After days of frantic lobbying by Conservative officials to try to get the party on board, May renewed appeals for unity over the “meaningful vote”, after the government appeared to have secured a compromise to stop a similar rebellion on Wednesday over Britain’s trading ties with the EU.
“The prime minister said that the votes were important in terms of the message they send to Brussels,” May’s spokesman said she told her cabinet team of ministers.
“She said that anything which undermines the government at home would make the negotiations with the EU more difficult.”
Parliament must decide whether to support an amendment approved by the House of Lords that could mean sending May back into negotiations with the EU if lawmakers reject a Brexit deal.
Davis warned lawmakers the government would never allow them to “reverse Brexit” and called on them to back its own amendment, which proposes a 28-day breathing space if parliament rejects a Brexit deal, during which the government would have to make a statement on its plans.
After it was not clear whether that would win over potential rebels, a minister offered Grieve a compromise to discuss parts of his amendment that the government could adopt – a move aimed at warding off a potential rebellion led by the lawmaker.
His competing amendment could force ministers to hand over control of its Brexit strategy to parliament if there is no deal by mid-February. The government earlier had said it would not support that amendment.
Conservative Brexit campaigners accused those in the party who indicated they would vote against the government of not respecting the referendum result.
“We are asking members of parliament to abide by the referendum result, our manifesto commitment and to back our country,” Andrew Bridgen, Conservative lawmaker and Brexit campaigner, told Reuters. “It’s not difficult.”
But the resignation by Phillip Lee, who has long been critical of the government’s Brexit strategy, underlined the deep rifts in the party over Brexit that makes such votes anything but easy.
The “meaningful vote” will be the first major test after the House of Lords introduced changes to the bill, trying to reshape the government’s approach to Brexit by encouraging lawmakers to press for the closest possible ties.
On Tuesday, parliament will also debate other amendments, including a challenge to the government’s plan to put March 29, 2019, or ‘Brexit Day’, into law and an attempt to toughen a commitment to ensure a frictionless border between Northern Ireland and the neighboring Irish Republic, which will remain in the EU.
On Wednesday, parliament will consider a challenge to May’s commitment to leave the EU’s single market and customs union, which will transform Britain’s future trading relationships for many years to come.
If May is defeated in the House of Commons it will be yet another blow to a prime minister whose authority has been challenged several times since last year’s election. She now relies on the support of a small Northern Irish party.
Matthew Pennycook, one of the opposition Labour Party’s Brexit policy team, urged lawmakers to vote to hand parliament more powers.
“The question of what form parliamentary approval of the withdrawal bill takes is one of the most significant decisions this house will have to take,” he said.
Additional reporting by Michael Holden; Editing by Janet Lawrence