The House of Lords should not “undermine” the UK’s EU exit, Brexit Secretary David Davis has told MPs.
Opening debate on the EU Withdrawal Bill, Mr Davis said a bid to give Parliament more control over Brexit would tie ministers’ hands and lead to a bad deal for the UK.
Conservative MPs have been urged not to rebel against the government’s attempts to kill off Lords amendments.
But the government was hit by a resignation ahead of the votes.
Justice Minister Phillip Lee said Parliament was being sidelined and that he could not support “how our country’s exit from the EU looks set to be delivered”.
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Starting two days of Commons debate, Mr Davis told MPs the bill’s “primary purpose” was to ensure a “functioning statute book” on the day the UK leaves the EU, 29 March 2019.
The most tightly-contested amendment is expected to be a call for Parliament to decide what happens next if it does not like the UK-EU Brexit deal.
The first votes are expected to happen from 16:15 BST.
Other amendments being debated are on removing the precise day of Brexit from the wording of the bill, and scrutinising ministers’ powers to make changes to laws when they are repatriated from Brussels.
Minister resigns over Brexit
Phillip Lee has been a junior justice minister since July 2016, having first been elected as the Bracknell MP in 2010.
Explaining the reasons for his resignation, he cited the government’s opposition to the “meaningful vote” amendment, saying this position “breaches fundamental principles of human rights and Parliamentary sovereignty”.
He also raised concerns about the economic impact of leaving the EU, saying Brexit had turned out to be much more complicated than first thought.
The UK should “pause, extend or revoke” the Article 50 process which formally triggered its departure from the EU, he said, calling for another referendum once ministers’ chosen path becomes clear.
Pro-EU campaigners hailed his resignation as significant in their calls for a referendum on the UK and EU’s final Brexit deal.
Brexit-backing former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith said he was surprised, adding: “I didn’t realise he felt this strongly.”
Mr Duncan Smith said the amendment giving more power to Parliament would be “disastrous” and allow the House of Lords to “block the whole passage of Brexit”.
Final say for Parliament?
BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg said the numbers were still “rather dicey” for the so-called meaningful vote amendment.
It would mean ministers “must follow any direction” set by a House of Commons motion if Parliament rejects the final Brexit deal or negotiations run out of time.
The government says this would bind the UK’s hands in the negotiations.
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Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Mr Davis said a Parliamentary vote on the Brexit deal did not give “the ability to reverse the decision of the referendum”.
Asked what would happen if MPs rejected the deal, he said there would be no time to restart negotiations, with the UK leaving the EU in March 2019.
“If they throw it out, well they throw it out,” he said.
Rebels have dismissed the government’s amendment, a commitment by ministers to make a statement within 28 days should MPs vote down the package negotiated by Mrs May.
Customs compromise deal?
A showdown over customs seems to have been averted after a compromise amendment was accepted by the government – which means it has agreed to report to Parliament by October on efforts to negotiate a “customs arrangement” with the EU after Brexit.
The fallback position has won the backing of a cross-section of leading Tory MPs on either side of the Brexit argument, avoiding for now a showdown over calls – backed by the House of Lords earlier this year – for the UK to remain in a fully-fledged customs union with the EU after it leaves.
Mr Davis said a “great deal of progress” had been made in negotiations, saying he was expecting both a withdrawal agreement and the “substance” of the UK and EU’s future relationship to be finalised in October.
He also described as “nonsense” reports he threatened to resign over the wording of last week’s “backstop” plan to avoid border checks in Northern Ireland.