By Kylie MacLellan
LONDON (Reuters) – While the British government tries to prevent parliament from having to pass a law to trigger the country’s exit from the European Union, Reuters research indicates the lower house would in fact support it, based on lawmakers’ recent statements.
Prime Minister Theresa May has said she aims to launch the two-year negotiating period for the country’s departure from the 28-nation bloc by the end of March and that the referendum vote in June to leave the EU provides sufficient instruction.
The High Court has said parliamentary approval is required to invoke Article 50 of the EU’s Lisbon treaty, governing the EU exit process. The government is challenging that decision in the Supreme Court, which began hearing the case on Monday.
If the government loses, the House of Commons lower chamber could in theory block Brexit, because a majority of lawmakers supported staying in the EU at the referendum.
But recent public comments made by remain-supporting lawmakers from the ruling Conservative Party and main opposition Labour Party indicate that May would have more than the number of votes the government would need to pass a Brexit bill.
Their positions, set out on social media, on their own websites or in media interviews, reinforce the likelihood of Brexit, which has wide implications for the EU and beyond.
They could change by the time the Supreme Court rules in January, however, and any Article 50 bill could also face trouble in parliament’s upper chamber, the House of Lords, although if it blocked the bill the government could retable it.
At least 64 Conservative and Labour lawmakers in the lower house have said they plan to vote to trigger Article 50 if parliament is given a say. Lawmakers from the Democratic Unionist Party, Ulster Unionist Party, and UK Independence Party, who number 11 in total, will also back it.
A further 98 members of parliament are either whips, tasked with getting lawmakers to vote the way the government wants, or ministers, and are therefore required to vote with the government. In addition, 129 others from the two main parties backed quitting the EU, bringing the total to 302.
Seventy-three lawmakers have said they respect the outcome of the referendum or would not ultimately block the start of divorce talks, indicating they could either vote for or abstain.
While the government in theory needs 322 votes to be sure of passing a bill, any abstentions would bring that number down. If all 73 abstained, the number needed to pass the bill would drop to 285, so it would still easily go through.
“Of course there are different views on what an EU exit should look like,” John Penrose, a remain-backing lawmaker and former minister wrote on grassroots website ConservativeHome.
“But if we start bickering about them before we’ve even begun our journey to leave the EU, we will never take the first step,” said Penrose, who has introduced a motion to parliament calling for it to support triggering Article 50.
A total of just 22 remain-backing lawmakers from the Conservative and Labour parties have said they either definitely would or may vote against triggering Article 50, depending on what information they have at the time.
The Scottish National Party’s 54 lawmakers, all of whom represent areas which voted to remain, and the pro-EU Liberal Democrats, who are seeking a second referendum on the final Brexit deal, have also said they may vote against.
Last week a Liberal Democrat who campaigned on a promise to vote against starting Brexit talks won a parliamentary seat previously held by May’s Conservatives and members of other small parties may also vote against.
The BBC reported the government has prepared a three-line piece of legislation which it believed would be “bomb-proof” against amendments by lawmakers seeking to add conditions.
Some will still try. Labour have said they plan to amend the bill to secure assurances over access to the EU’s single market and protection of workers’ rights, something the government says would tie its hand in upcoming negotiations.
“We will not frustrate the process by voting down Article 50, but we cannot have a debate in a vacuum,” Labour’s Brexit spokesman Keir Starmer told parliament last month.
“The future relationship of the UK in the world is at stake. The Prime Minister simply cannot keep all this to herself.”
Lawmakers on Wednesday backed a call by Labour for the government to set out its plans for leaving the EU before formal talks begin. In a symbolic vote they also supported, by 461 to 89, May’s Brexit timetable.
While some argued this effectively meant lawmakers were agreeing to support the start of exit talks regardless of the exact legal process, Labour’s Starmer said lawmakers were “not voting to trigger article 50 or to give authority to the Prime Minister to do so”.
Single market access, protecting jobs and the economy and safeguarding worker’s rights were the top three most important issues mentioned by remain-supporting lawmakers in their public comments on what they would seek to prioritize in Brexit talks.
But many lawmakers are now more focused on lobbying the government once talks have begun than holding up the process.
“It is vital that there is full scrutiny and accountability during the process,” Labour lawmaker Hilary Benn, chair of parliament’s Brexit committee, said.
“It has also been argued that parliament should delay the triggering of Article 50 until there is a firm deal on the table, but this can’t happen for the very simple reason that until negotiations begin … no deal will be able to be reached.”
(Additional reporting by Himanshu Ojha, editing by Philippa Fletcher)