LONDON – The British government faced another knife-edge vote in Parliament on its flagship Brexit legislation Wednesday, as pro-EU lawmakers tried to wrest more control over the country's departure from the European Union.
The House of Commons was debating a proposal that would make the government get Parliament's approval before agreeing to a final divorce deal with the EU — or before walking away from the bloc without an agreement.
Since a majority of lawmakers favor retaining close ties with the bloc, that would reduce the chances of a "no deal" Brexit, a scenario favored by some euroskeptic members of Prime Minister Theresa May's Conservative minority government.
May faced rebellion last week from pro-EU Conservative legislators, but avoided defeat by promising Parliament would get a "meaningful vote" on the U.K.-EU divorce agreement before Brexit occurs next March.
Pro-EU lawmakers later accused the government of going back on its word by offering only a "take it or leave it" vote on the final deal.
They are seeking to amend the flagship EU Withdrawal Bill so they can send the government back to the negotiating table if they don't like the deal, or if talks with the EU break down.
The government claims that would undermine its negotiating hand with the EU.
"You cannot enter a negotiation without the right to walk away," Brexit Secretary David Davis told lawmakers. "If you do, it rapidly ceases to be a negotiation."
But Conservative lawmaker Phillip Lee, who resigned as a junior health minister last week so he could oppose the government, said "it's nonsense that somehow this makes it harder for the prime minister to do a deal in Brussels."
"I think Parliament deserves to have a proper role in this process, a truly meaningful vote," he added.
The result of the vote is expected to be close.
It has been two years since Britain voted by 52-48 percent to exit the 28-nation EU after four decades of membership, and there are eight months until the U.K. is due to leave the bloc on March 29, 2019.
But Britain — and its government — remains divided over Brexit, and EU leaders are frustrated with what they see as a lack of firm proposals from the U.K about future relations.
May's government is divided between Brexit-backing ministers such as Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson who support a clean break with the EU, and those such as Treasury chief Philip Hammond who want to keep closely aligned to the bloc, Britain's biggest trading partner. Parliament is also divided between supporters of "hard" and "soft Brexit.
A paper setting out the U.K. government position on future relations, due to be published this month, has been delayed until July because the Cabinet cannot agree on a united stance.
The European Parliament's leader on Brexit, Guy Verhofstadt, said Wednesday that he remains hopeful a U.K.-EU withdrawal agreement could be finalized by the fall, so that national parliaments have time to approve it before March.
"The worst scenario for both parties is no deal," he told a committee of British lawmakers. "The disruption that would create to the economy, not only on the continent but certainly in Britain, would be huge and that we have to avoid."