LONDON — Theresa May’s government endured its first House of Commons defeat on Brexit legislation Wednesday, after MPs narrowly voted in favor of an amendment that guarantees them a say on the final divorce deal.
Twelve Conservative MPs rebelled against the government to back the amendment to the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, voting with opposition parties to defeat the government by 309 votes to 305.
The vote means government assurances to MPs that they will get a vote on the final Brexit withdrawal agreement — likely to be concluded in autumn next year — are now written into legislation.
After a successful week in which the U.K. prime minister secured a deal on phase one of the Brexit talks in Brussels, the vote is a setback for May, and once again exposes her political weakness at home. May lost her House of Commons majority after calling a general election in June.
The timing of the vote is also unfortunate for the prime minister, coming on the eve of a European Council summit in Brussels at which EU leaders are still expected to rubber-stamp moving Brexit talks onto phase two.
The vote will raise doubts about May’s ability to follow through on her Brexit strategy at home. Not only does she have a number of MPs prepared to vote against the government to maintain parliament’s role in Brexit, she also has a faction of hard Brexit-supporting MPs who may resist anything they see as further concessions to the EU in the final Brexit deal.
A government spokesperson said minsters were “disappointed” that the vote had passed despite what they called “strong assurances.”
“We are very clear that this bill and the powers within it, are essential,” the spokesperson said. “This amendment does not prevent us from preparing our statute book exit day. We will now determine whether further changes are needed to the bill to ensure it fulfils its vital purpose.”
The amendment was brought by the Conservative former Attorney General Dominic Grieve. It passed despite a last-minute attempt by the government to appease potential Tory rebels by offering to amend the Bill at a later stage of the process.
Nicky Morgan, a former Cabinet minister and one of the rebel Conservatives said: “Voting against the government saddens me greatly, but parliament has to stand up for itself and take control of the EU withdrawal process.”
The Withdrawal Bill aims to convert the bulk of EU law into U.K. legislation to ensure a smooth transition on the day after Brexit. It grants the government significant powers — free from the usual parliamentary scrutiny — to implement a wide range of technical legal changes.
However, Grieve and the Conservative rebels have expressed concerns that the Bill could, despite the government’s stated intention to hold a vote, allow the government to implement the withdrawal agreement with MPs having a say.
Minutes after the vote, one of the rebels, Stephen Hammond, was sacked as a party vice chairman, Sky reported.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn called the defeat “a humiliating loss of authority for the government on the eve of the European Council meeting.”
“Theresa May has resisted democratic accountability,” he said. “Her refusal to listen means she will now have to accept parliament taking back control.”
Another Conservative rebel, former minister Anna Soubry, said she hoped the vote would mark “a change in the government’s approach to Brexit.”
“We need to deliver a Brexit for everyone in Britain. Parliament voted to take back control. Government must now embrace the 48 percent who voted Remain and have been largely ignored ever since,” she said.