London, Jun 12: UK Justice Minister Phillip Lee today resigned over the British government's handling of Brexit, dealing a significant blow to Prime Minister Theresa May who is facing a crunch time in Parliament due to the EU Withdrawal Bill.
Lee stepped down from his ministerial post, saying Parliament was being sidelined and that he could not support "how our country's exit from the EU looks set to be delivered". He announced his decision to resign hours before a key House of Commons clash in which May faces a challenge from many of her own Conservative Party MPs over how much say Parliament gets over the final Brexit deal.
The issue is likely to be the most important of 15 House of Lords amendments to the EU Withdrawal Bill that the government hopes to overturn during debates in the Commons.
The EU Withdrawal Bill is the legislation aimed at ensuring the UK has a smooth transition out of the 27-member EU, and will mean EU law is no longer supreme in the UK.
Opening the debate on the bill today, Britain's minister for Exiting the European Union, David Davis, said a bid to give Parliament more control over Brexit would tie ministers' hands and lead to a bad deal for the UK.
He criticised the House of Lords amendment to the bill as an "unconstitutional shift which risks undermining our negotiations with the European Union". He said: "We have listened wherever possible to sensible suggestions that have been made to improve the bill. But where amendments seek to, or inadvertently, undermine the essential purpose of the bill or the referendum result, we must reject them".
"This bill has a clear purpose, ensuring whole UK has a functioning statute book on exit day. We've listened to Lords amendments that seek to improve the bill, but must reject those that seek to disrupt the Bill or undermine the referendum result."
Just before the series of 15 amendments made by the Lords to the government's so-called Brexit bill is put before MPs, May addressed Conservative party backbenchers on Monday to make a plea for unity. At a meeting of the party's 1922 Committee, she told MPs to consider the signal it would send to the EU if the government were defeated.
"I am trying to negotiate the best deal for Britain. But if the Lords amendments are allowed to stand, that negotiating position will be undermined. We must think about the message Parliament will send to the European Union this week," she said.
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. Other amendments being debated are on removing the precise day of Brexit – March 29, 2019 – from the wording of the bill, and scrutinising ministers' powers to make changes to laws when they are repatriated from Brussels.
A showdown over a shared Customs Union with the EU 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 fall-back position has won the backing of a cross-section of leading Tory MPs on either side of the Brexit argument, avoiding a showdown over calls for the UK to remain in a fully-fledged Customs Union with the EU after it leaves.
To avoid a sudden "cliff edge" on Brexit day, it would also convert existing EU law into UK law so the government and Parliament can decide at a later date which bits they want to keep or change.
The House of Lords has put forward specific changes to the bill, most of which the government wants to kill off. However, numbers in the House of Commons are finely balanced, with the Conservatives not having a majority and needing the help of Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party to get votes through.