London (AFP) - Lawmakers from British Prime Minister Theresa May's Conservative party reacted angrily Wednesday after a newspaper labelled them "mutineers" for challenging the government's Brexit legislation, saying they would only fight harder.
After a heated start to the House of Commons debate Tuesday of a landmark bill ending Britain's membership of the European Union, the Conservative-backing Daily Telegraph ran a provocative front page with large photos of 15 rebels.
"The Brexit mutineers -- Remain-supporting Conservatives rebel against May's move to enshrine in law the date Britain leaves EU," Wednesday's headline read, referring to those who voted to stay in the EU in last year's referendum.
The targets of the piece accused the paper of "bullying", while a government minister distanced himself from what he said was an attempt to "divide" the party.
"If fighting for the best possible future for our country and our government is considered mutiny -- then bring it on," tweeted one MP, Heidi Allen.
Another, Anna Soubry, said it was a "blatant piece of bullying" and insisted none of those named wanted to delay or thwart Brexit.
"We just want a good Brexit that works for everybody in our country," she said.
However, she added that she took being named as a "badge of honour", adding on Twitter that "a number of Tory MPs (are) outraged they've been left off!"
"The role of MPs is not to be lobby fodder but to scrutinise legislation," tweeted Antoinette Sandbach, referring to the lobby areas in which lawmakers vote.
Brexit minister Steve Baker, who spoke for the government in Tuesday's debate, tweeted: "I regret any media attempts to divide our party.
"My parliamentary colleagues have sincere suggestions to improve the bill which we are working through and I respect them for that."
- 'Don't want us to leave' -
The government won the first five votes late Tuesday on the EU (Withdrawal) Bill, which seeks to formally end Britain's membership and transfer European law onto the UK statute books.
Debate resumes on Wednesday on the next batch of almost 200 pages of amendments tabled from MPs of all parties.
Conservative rebellions are likely later on in the process, with a further six days of discussion set aside over the coming weeks.
Criticism of the bill was initially focused on its provisions to give powers to ministers to amend the EU law as it is moved across.
But a last-minute government move to use the law to legislate for Brexit day has sparked widespread anger among those who argue that there should be some flexibility if EU negotiations are delayed.
Britain trigged the two-year Article 50 process of leaving the EU on March 29 this year, but this can be extended if all 28 EU member states including Britain agree.
Ministers want to set exit day as 2300 GMT on March 29, 2019.
A eurosceptic Conservative MP, Bernard Jenkin, told the debate Tuesday that any lawmakers who opposed the government's move "are open to the charge that they don't want us to leave the European Union".
However Dominic Grieve, the former attorney general who was named by the Daily Telegraph and has tabled around 20 amendments to the bill, told AFP earlier this week: "I'm not trying to stop Brexit.
"If I wanted to stop Brexit I should have voted against Article 50. I didn't. My purpose is to try to make sure that Brexit is as controlled and risk-free a process as possible."