LONDON (Reuters) - Prime Minister Theresa May urged her Conservative Party on Monday to show unity and vote against changes to her Brexit blueprint, warning lawmakers they would undermine her negotiation with the European Union.
Lawmakers will vote on Tuesday and Wednesday this week on amendments to the EU withdrawal bill - legislation to sever ties with the bloc by essentially copying and pasting the bloc’s laws so that Britain’s legal system can function after March.
Underlining the fear that pro-EU Conservative rebels could vote against the government, May addressed lawmakers in her party at a meeting of its 1922 Committee to try to rally the troops before facing the first day of difficult votes.
Her government is most vulnerable over an amendment, introduced by the upper house of parliament, to change the so-called “meaningful vote” on any final Brexit deal by handing the lower house more power to set the “direction” of the government if it rejects the agreement. It will be debated on Tuesday.
She will also be tested on Wednesday by rebels in her own party over her commitment to leave the EU’s single market and customs union, which will transform Britain’s future trading relationships for many years to come.
“We must think about the message parliament will send to the European Union this week,” she said to the 1922 Committee, according to her office.
“I am trying to negotiate the best deal for Britain. I am confident I can get a deal that allows us to strike our own trade deals while having a border with the EU which is as frictionless as possible. But if the Lords amendments are allowed to stand, that negotiating position will be undermined.”
She could be heard being cheered from outside the room in parliament where lawmakers from both sides of the debate, including some of her ministers, gathered on the eve of the votes.
It was a message reinforced by her spokesman, who described the bill as “a vital piece of legislation for ensuring our statute book is ready for Brexit day and for delivering the smoothest possible exit from the European Union”.
The House of Lords defeated the government 15 times in earlier votes, offering parliament the chance to put pressure on May and her government to change tack on Brexit, which has divided not only parliament but her cabinet and the country.
Outside parliament, around 60 protesters called on parliament to stop Brexit, saying they were cheated by the 2016 campaign to leave the EU which they suspected had been influenced by Moscow.
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 she lost the Conservative Party’s majority in an ill-judged election last year. She now relies on the support of a small Northern Irish party.
Party officials have been frantically lobbying lawmakers to try to persuade those who have threatened to vote against the government to stay in line, using arguments ranging from the threat being turfed out by a government led by opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to losing any leverage in Brexit talks.
Ministers and other lawmakers have been told to make sure they will be in parliament for the votes.
But May is not only struggling to unite parliament over her plans. Her party and her top team of ministers also are deeply split over how to leave the EU, particularly over the future customs arrangements which have pitted those wanting closer ties with the EU against others who demand a clean break.
With only 10 months left before Britain is due to leave, her government is under pressure from EU negotiators, businesses wanting clarity, and from many in the country to start taking decisions on its preferred future trading ties.
May’s decision to leave the customs union, which sets tariffs for goods imported into the EU, has also been criticised for raising the prospect of a “hard” border on the island of Ireland, which some fear could reignite sectarian violence.
The government will try to overturn the 14 main amendments and a Brexit minister, Steve Baker, said the government was in talks with lawmakers to find a way around one on the customs union which challenges May’s strategy.
“Our policy is to leave the customs union so we can conduct our own independent trade policy, but it would be appropriate to have an arrangement in place,” Baker told reporters.
Additional reporting by Andrew MacAskill and Emily Roe; Editing by Mark Heinrich