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Britain's May bows to Brexit pressure in parliament

World Jul 16, 2018 02:29PM ET
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© Reuters. Britain's Prime Minister, Theresa May, arrives at Downing Street, in central London

By Elizabeth Piper and William James

LONDON (Reuters) - Prime Minister Theresa May bowed to pressure from Brexit supporters in her party on Monday, accepting changes to her plans for leaving the European Union in an attempt to salvage her over-arching strategy.

But by bending to the will of hardline Brexit campaigners she exposed her vulnerability in parliament, where both wings of her party attacked each other, highlighting the deep divisions that have so far hampered progress in talks with the EU.

May has vowed to stick to her plan to negotiate the closest possible trade ties with the EU, saying her strategy was the only one that could meet the government's aims for Brexit, the biggest shift in Britain's foreign and trade policy for decades.

But her plans have been criticized by pro-EU Conservative lawmakers, with one former minister calling it the "worst of all worlds", while eurosceptics say the strategy will keep Britain firmly in the bloc's sphere of influence.

Brexit supporters had targeted the government's customs legislation, hoping to toughen up her plans to leave the EU. Instead of facing them down and fuelling tensions, her spokesman said the government would accept their four amendments.

The spokesman said the changes did little more than to put government policy into law. But by hardening the language to emphasize that the future collection of duties and taxes by Britain and the EU be on a reciprocal basis, Brexit supporters may have made May's plan less sellable to the bloc.

For now, her plans appeared still largely on track.

May denied a suggestion in parliament that her Brexit plan was dead, and her spokesman said the decision to accept those amendments were "consistent" with the white paper policy document ministers agreed earlier this month.

Where the government might struggle is explaining its acceptance of the demand that the EU must collect tariffs on Britain's behalf, if London is to do the same - a suggestion one expert said the bloc's negotiators were unlikely to accept.

The government's acceptance of the amendments to the Taxation (Cross-border Trade) Bill, or customs bill, also did little to ease the tensions in May's party, which is at war with itself over the Brexit plans.

In one of the rowdiest debates in parliament on Brexit so far, pro-EU Conservative lawmaker Anna Soubry said: "The only reason that the government has accepted these amendments is because it is frightened of somewhere in the region of 40 members of parliament, the hard no-deal Brexiteers, who should have been seen off a long time ago."

"WORST OF BOTH WORLDS"

The battle over the amendments is unlikely to be the last that May and her team will have to face.

May had to fight hard to get the agreement of cabinet ministers at her Chequers country residence earlier this month for her vision for Britain's future ties with the EU. It was then undermined by the resignations of her Brexit minister David Davis and foreign secretary Boris Johnson.

They and other eurosceptic Conservatives say the plan to keep close customs ties with the EU - which is only a starting point for a second phase of talks with Brussels - betrays her promise of a clean break with the 27-nation bloc after Brexit.

From the other wing of May's party, pro-EU former education minister Justine Greening called on Monday for a second referendum, saying it was the only way to break the stalemate in parliament over the best future relationship with the bloc.

Greening branded May's plan as "a fudge I can't support. It's the worst of both worlds".

May's spokesman said there would be no second referendum under any circumstances, and restated her position that the Chequers plan was the only way to deliver a Brexit that worked in the best interests of the country.

Another pro-EU Conservative lawmaker Dominic Grieve, who has led previous efforts to get the government to soften its Brexit stance, said the party needed to accept compromises "or accept that Brexit cannot be implemented and think again about what we are doing".

Britain's May bows to Brexit pressure in parliament
 

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