UK Leader Fends Off Challenge to Brexit Strategy


LONDON—British Prime Minister

Theresa May

narrowly avoided a bruising parliamentary defeat Tuesday over her Brexit strategy, seeing off a challenge that would have given lawmakers much greater say over negotiations with Brussels.

Yet deep divisions remain in London over the terms of Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union, with several tricky issues still unresolved almost two years after voters chose to exit from the EU in a referendum.

Mrs. May is scheduled to discuss progress with fellow European leaders at a summit later this month.

Lawmakers on Tuesday were asked to consider an amendment to the government’s flagship Brexit legislation that would have given Parliament the power to reject whatever Brexit deal Mrs. May agrees with Brussels and dictate fresh terms for renewed negotiations.

Mrs. May’s victory was slim—324 lawmakers voted down the proposition, with 298 voting in favor—and came only after her government made concessions to rebels from her own party. The narrow margin reflects the loss of Mrs. May’s parliamentary majority in an election last year. She has held on to power thanks to the support of a small group of lawmakers from Northern Ireland.

Ministers had argued the amendment would have severely weakened the U.K.’s hand in negotiations with Brussels. Rebels in Mrs. May’s ruling Conservatives—who inflicted a defeat on the government in a similar vote in December—mostly fell into line after senior officials pledged to listen more closely to their concerns that Parliament doesn’t have a big enough role in the Brexit process.

Chief among those concerns is what happens if Mrs. May comes back from negotiations empty-handed. The rebels, led by former attorney general Dominic Grieve, want to prevent the U.K. crashing out of the EU without a deal.

Mr. Grieve on Tuesday suggested an alternative amendment to the legislation that would give Parliament extra powers in the event that no political agreement on withdrawal was reached.

In a concession to the rebels, ministers signaled they will consider his proposals for inclusion in the final legislation—a step that could reduce the risk of a disorderly exit.

A defeat for Mrs. May would have injected a fresh dose of uncertainty into the process of untangling the U.K. from the EU.

The U.K. is scheduled to leave the EU in March next year and multiple aspects of the divorce agreement and the U.K.’s future relationship to the bloc have yet to be agreed. Mrs. May’s cabinet is split over whether to seek close ties or opt for a more decisive break.

The parliamentary pitfalls for Mrs. May haven’t yet passed. Lawmakers are due to vote Wednesday on legislative amendments that would oblige the government to seek closer ties with the EU on customs than it says it wants, though analysts expect her to see off that challenge, too.

The political drama was heightened earlier Tuesday when a junior minister in Mrs. May’s administration resigned his post, citing unease over the government’s Brexit strategy.

Phillip Lee,

a junior minister in the Justice Department who supported remaining in the EU during the 2016 referendum, said Brexit, as currently pursued, would damage businesses in his district, west of London, and that he couldn’t allay the fears of people in his constituency about the outcome.

Write to Jason Douglas at jason.douglas@wsj.com and Stephen Fidler at stephen.fidler@wsj.com



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