British Parliament has started hours of debate by arguing over when the two-year negotiating period for Brexit should end and whether there should be a fixed time at all.
- Catcalls, sarcastic jokes and jeers are bandied about even within major parties
- MPs say the UK must be prepared to exit the EU without a deal
- Parliament calls it the UK’s largest legislative project in history
It was just the first day of what promises to be a lengthy set of debates in Parliament on Prime Minister Theresa May’s blueprint for leaving the EU — debates that will challenge her diminished authority and could force changes to her Brexit plan.
Ms May’s absence on Tuesday on another engagement suggested she was not unduly worried by the initial discussion.
But the debate’s ill-tempered tone showed the level of anger in a Parliament emboldened since Ms May lost her Conservative Party’s majority in a June election and was forced to garner the support of a small Northern Irish party to be able to pass legislation.
With catcalls, sarcastic jokes and jeers being bandied about — not just between the two main parties, as is the custom, but often within them — some MPs took issue with the Government’s plans to quit the EU at 11:00pm on March 29.
One, from the opposition Labour Party, said Britain should leave the EU on March 30, 2019, preferring midnight British time to the Government’s proposal to leave an hour earlier — which would be midnight in Brussels.
That was determined to be “technically deficient” by the government minister on the opposite side of the House of Commons, who said any amendment trying to move the exit date and time threatened to push Britain into “legal chaos” if the country’s statute book was not in order when it left.
“As a responsible government we must be ready to exit without a deal, even though we expect to conclude a deep and special partnership [with the EU],” he told Parliament.
‘Largest legislative project undertaken by Britain ever’
Behind the debate is the fear of pro-Brexit MPs that Britain may never leave the EU, and of pro-EU members, who fear that by setting any firm date, Britain will have no flexibility in talks with the bloc and might end up with no deal.
Another debate later on Tuesday will look at the interpretation of EU law.
The debates go to the heart of what Parliament calls “one of the largest legislative projects ever undertaken in the UK”.
The process of transposing EU law into British law could not only reopen the divisions exposed when Britons voted 52-48 per cent to quit the EU on June 23 last year, but also further undermine Ms May’s already fragile authority.
Ms May has lost two ministers to scandals and her Foreign Minister, Boris Johnson, is facing calls to resign over remarks he made about a jailed aid worker in Iran — local media has reported 40 Conservatives support a vote on no-confidence.
The Prime Minister has tried to ease tensions by offering MPs some concessions on the bill, but still faces more divisive debates which could go against her.
Mr Davis and EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier during a fifth rounds of negotiations. (Reuters: Francois Lenoir, file)
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