LONDON (Reuters) – Britain faces a chaotic exit from the European Union if lawmakers vote against legislation designed to sever political, financial and legal ties with the bloc, Britain’s Brexit minister David Davis said before a key parliamentary vote.
Parliament is due to hold a late-night vote on whether to let the central plank of Britain’s Brexit plan – the EU withdrawal bill – move to the next stage of the lawmaking process.
The government is expected to win the vote, but it is the most serious test yet of Prime Minister Theresa May’s leadership after she lost her parliamentary majority at a June 8 election and failed to win a clear mandate for her Brexit strategy.
The bill seeks largely to copy and paste EU law into British legislation to ensure the UK has functioning laws and the same regulatory framework as the bloc at the moment of Brexit, something the government says provides certainty for companies.
“A vote against this bill is a vote for a chaotic exit from the European Union,” Davis said in a statement.
“Businesses and individuals need reassurance that there will be no unexpected changes to our laws after exit day and that is exactly what the repeal bill provides. Without it, we would be approaching a cliff edge of uncertainty which is not in the interest of anyone.”
Failure to clear the first of many hurdles in the lawmaking process would present a major problem for May, who now relies on the support of a small Northern Irish political party to govern and faces persistent questions about her future as leader.
“She needs to keep going, get this thing done … we need to get this great ship launched,” Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson – a one-time rival for the leadership of the party and a prominent pro-Brexit campaigner told the BBC.
With the support of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, May has a working majority of 13 in the 650-seat parliament.
Most potential pro-EU rebels within May’s Conservative Party have signalled they are willing to back the plan at this stage, although they are expected to raise objections later in the legislative process when more detailed scrutiny takes place.
The opposition Labour Party has already said it plans to vote against the bill unless the government comes forward with concessions, and has said several clauses in the legislation amount to a “power grab” by government.
The government has promised concerned lawmakers that ministers would not use the wide-ranging powers to make “substantive changes” to law.
To vote down the bill, Labour would need to convince EU supporters in the governing Conservatives to side with them, but some more vocal pro-EU Conservative lawmakers have said they will vote with the government after asking for reassurance that parliament will be able to scrutinise any changes to the law.
Some opposition lawmakers are also expected to defy party orders and support the government.
Pro-EU Conservative lawmaker Ken Clarke told Sky News he expected the government to have to change the wording of the bill to win over parliament.
“We have been reassured they are not going to use these powers in any policy-making way … parliament would be sensible to get them to write it so they are not giving themselves the possibility of using powers that no government has ever tried to take at the expense of parliament before,” he said.
The vote, which is expected late Monday or in the early hours of Tuesday, is the first of many stages the bill must pass before it becomes law. Next, it will face line-by-line scrutiny and, if approved, then move to the unelected upper house of parliament – where May has no majority – for a similar process.
The process is expected to take months to complete and both houses should agree the final wording before it can be passed.
Editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Andrew Heavens