May wins Brexit vote, avoids rebellion

Elizabeth Piper, Andrew MacAskill and William James
Theresa May was given reason to smile after the government won a key Brexit vote in parliament

British Prime Minister Theresa May has defeated a rebellion in parliament over her Brexit plans, but not without having to compromise and hand lawmakers more control over Britain's departure from the European Union.

After winning Tuesday's vote on changes to a future "meaningful vote" on a final agreement with Brussels in her EU withdrawal bill, May's plans to end more than 40 years of membership in the bloc were still on track.

But her concession to parliament means that lawmakers now have more power if she fails to secure a Brexit deal, which may lead to a softer approach to Britain's divorce. Although, as things stand, they will not be able to send the government back into negotiations if they reject an agreement with the EU.

Lawmakers backed a government plan, ending a rebellion that would have challenged May's authority at a time when she is increasingly under pressure to move ahead with all-but stalled Brexit talks in Brussels by offering a more detailed plan.

Earlier, Brexit minister David Davis told parliament a government defeat would undermine negotiations with Brussels and warned lawmakers the government would never allow them to "reverse Brexit".

"The government cannot demonstrate the flexibility necessary for a successful deal if its hands are tied midway through that process," he said.

The victory was the first major win in two days of debates on the government's EU withdrawal bill, which will sever ties with the EU, after the upper house of parliament, the House of Lords, introduced 15 changes.

In the tense atmosphere where it was not clear which way the vote would go, the government secured its victory only after offering concessions to one of the leaders of a group of Conservative lawmakers who were threatening to vote against May.

Earlier, May appeared to have also stemmed a rebellion over her commitment to leaving the EU's customs union which will transform Britain's trading relationships for decades to come.

Lawmakers will vote on Wednesday on whether the government's move to dismiss a House of Lords amendment requiring ministers to report what efforts they had made in negotiations to secure a customs union by the end of October.

Instead, the government has proposed reporting its efforts to secure a customs arrangement.

In a day of drama, May's position seemed suddenly weaker when junior justice minister Phillip Lee, who has long been critical of the government's Brexit strategy, resigned and said he would vote against the government.

But it has secured victory on all the other votes so far on Tuesday, including a challenge to the government's plan to put March 29, 2019, or 'Brexit Day'.