Wednesday 21 March 2018

Resignation of MP further complicates Brexit strategy for Theresa May

Conservative Party MP Stephen Phillips, who has said he is standing down as MP for Sleaford and North Hykeham with immediate effect because of
Conservative Party MP Stephen Phillips, who has said he is standing down as MP for Sleaford and North Hykeham with immediate effect because of "irreconcilable policy differences with the current Government". Photo:Conservative Party/PA Wire Newsdesk Newsdesk

Theresa May was rocked by the resignation of a pro-Brexit Conservative MP over "irreconcilable policy differences" as she attempted to reassure European leaders that Britain's withdrawal from the EU remained on track.

Stephen Phillips announced he was quitting shortly after the Prime Minister called European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker and German chancellor Angela Merkel to stress her Brexit timetable remained unchanged - despite a High Court ruling that threatened to throw her plans into turmoil.

The judges' decision that Mrs May must get parliamentary approval before triggering Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty to formally launch Brexit, which she has promised to do by April, prompted calls for an emergency general election to settle the question.

Mr Phillips' resignation as MP for Sleaford and North Hykeham appeared to heap yet more pressure on the PM, although a No 10 source insisted Mrs May stood by her statement that there should not be a general election before 2020.

The source also revealed that Mr Phillips did not speak to Mrs May before his surprise resignation.

In a statement, he said: "It has been a great honour to serve the people of Sleaford and North Hykeham for the last six years, but it has become clear to me over the last few months that my growing and very significant policy differences with the current Government mean that I am unable properly to represent the people who elected me.

"This decision has been a difficult one and I hope that everyone will respect the fact that I have tried to act in the best interests of all of my constituents."

Mr Phillips' resignation leaves the Tories facing a second by-election, following Zac Goldsmith's decision to quit over Heathrow expansion, and further diminishes Mrs May's already slim Commons majority - making the process of passing legislation on Brexit even harder.

The Liberal Democrats have tried to make the contest in Mr Goldsmith's Richmond Park seat a referendum on Brexit.

Mr Phillips, who backed Leave in the June 23 referendum, has previously warned against the "tyranny" of denying MPs a vote on the Government's stance in forthcoming Brexit negotiations.

Last month he called for an urgent debate in the House of Commons on the matter, insisting that bypassing Parliament was "simply not an acceptable way for the executive to proceed".

As he announced his resignation, Downing Street was briefing details on Mrs May's talks with Mr Juncker and Mrs Merkel, and her reaction to the High Court ruling.

A No 10 spokesman said the Government did not accept the court's judgment and was "confident" of victory in an appeal to the Supreme Court.

He said Mrs May explained to Mr Juncker and Mrs Merkel that "while the Government is disappointed by the judgment yesterday, we remain of the firm belief that we have strong legal arguments ahead of the case which will be moving to the Supreme Court next month".

"The Prime Minister also confirmed that the planned timetable for notification of Article 50 remains the same," the spokesman added.

The chairman of Mr Phillips' local Conservative Association, George Clark, said the constituency party was "disappointed" at his resignation and backed the "strong" Prime Minister to forge a "new, positive role for the United Kingdom on the world stage as we leave the EU".

The Conservatives said Mr Phillips had been a "valuable member of Parliament" and the party was "sorry that he has chosen to step down".

Leave.EU's Arron Banks urged Mrs May to call a snap general election and go to the country on a platform of "a clean Brexit; no freedom of movement and no single market membership".

Ukip leadership candidate Suzanne Evans announced that she was seeking the party's candidacy for the Sleaford by-election.

Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson used a German term when asked about the resignation, and the possibility of a snap general election, during a visit to Berlin as he urged people not to pay too much attention to the "Sturm und Drang" - meaning "storm and pressure" - in the British Parliament.

Scotland First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has said she is studying the High Court judgment and "actively considering" whether there is a case for the Scottish Government to participate in the Supreme Court case. The SNP has made clear it is ready to vote against triggering Article 50.

Welsh Consul General Mick Antoniw said he would be seeking permission to take part in the Supreme Court case to call for the Welsh Assembly to have a say on Brexit.

He said the judgments from the High Court and a separate case in Northern Ireland raise questions about the legislative competence of the Assembly, the powers of Welsh ministers and the legal and constitutional relationships between the Assembly and Parliament and Welsh Government and UK Government.

Liberal Democrat Brexit spokesman Nick Clegg said the party would amend legislation to give voters a say on the Brexit settlement.

He told ITV News: "I will be working with MPs from all parties to ensure that as we amend the legislation ... we amend that law such that Government has to pursue a soft rather than a hard Brexit ... and also amend the legislation to ensure that the people ... have a say on the final package, the final terms of our departure at the end of our negotiations."

Press Association

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