A junior member of Prime Minister Theresa May’s government resigned Tuesday over Brexit, emboldening pro-EU lawmakers ahead of key votes in Parliament on Britain’s departure from the European Union.
Conservative lawmaker Phillip Lee, who voted to remain in the EU in Britain’s 2016 referendum, resigned as a justice minister so he could vote against the government on a key measure.
Lee said “the people, economy and culture of my constituency will be affected negatively” by Britain’s EU departure, and it is “irresponsible to proceed as we are.”
He called for Brexit to be delayed, and for the public to get a second referendum on the terms of any exit deal.
Lee’s resignation came as May’s fragile minority government scrambled to shore up support among lawmakers before two days of debate and votes in the House of Commons on its flagship Brexit bill.
The European Union Withdrawal Bill, a complex piece of legislation intended to disentangle Britain from the bloc, has had a rocky ride through Parliament. The upper chamber, the House of Lords, inserted amendments in 15 areas to soften the terms of Britain’s departure.
May says the changes would weaken the government’s negotiating position, and the government will try to alter or reverse them in the House of Commons on Tuesday and Wednesday. But May is facing a potential rebellion from some Conservative lawmakers who want to retain close ties with the bloc after the U.K. leaves in March 2019.
They are rallying around an amendment giving the House of Commons power to send the government back to the negotiating table with Brussels if lawmakers don’t like the terms of the Brexit deal struck with the EU. Currently, the government is offering lawmakers a “take it or leave it” vote on the final deal.
Another flashpoint could come when lawmakers vote Wednesday on an amendment seeking to keep Britain in a customs union with the EU.
May urged Conservative lawmakers to back the government and show “that we are united as a party in our determination to deliver on the decision made by the British people.”
In fact, her party is far from united. May’s Cabinet is divided between ministers including Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who support a clean break with the EU, and those such as Treasury chief Philip Hammond who want to keep close ties with the bloc, Britain’s biggest trading partner.
Britain is due to leave on March 29, 2019, and the bloc is frustrated with what it sees as a lack of firm proposals from the U.K about future relations. A paper laying out the U.K. government position, due to be published this month, has been delayed because the Cabinet cannot agree on a united stance.
Brexit Secretary David Davis warned Conservative rebels that they should not use this week’s votes to try to “reverse the decision of the referendum.”
“That was the decision of the British people … and whatever we do, we’re not going to reverse that,” he told the BBC.
This story originally appeared in Associated Press. Image courtesy of Boris Grdanoski/AP.