LONDON (AP) — As Brexit enters its endgame, the big divide is not between the U.K. and the European Union, but between Britain’s government and its Parliament.
Since Britain and the EU struck a divorce deal late last year, the U.K.’s executive and legislature have been at war, with Prime Minister Theresa May struggling to win Parliament’s backing for the deal ahead of a vote next week, and lawmakers battling to grab control of the Brexit process.
A series of heated debates and stunning government defeats has made for high political drama — and destabilized a country without a formal written constitution, whose democracy rests on centuries of accumulated laws, precedents and conventions.
As lawmakers held a second day of rancorous debate on the Brexit deal on Thursday, London School of Economics professor Iain Begg said Britain is “getting very close” to a constitutional crisis.
“It’s pretty clear that if Theresa May loses the vote next week, we don’t actually know what happens next,” Begg said. “And that’s beyond political.”
The divorce agreement lays out the terms of the U.K.’s departure from the EU on March 29 and sets the framework for future relations. It was sealed by Britain and the EU in November — a milestone that should have set the U.K. on the road to an orderly exit.
But it has displeased both sides of Britain’s Brexit divide. Many lawmakers who back leaving the EU say it leaves the U.K. tethered to the bloc’s rules and unable to forge an independent trade policy, while pro-Europeans argue it is inferior to the frictionless economic relationship Britain currently enjoys as an EU member.
May postponed a vote on the agreement in December to avert a crushing defeat, and signs suggest the House of Commons will reject the deal in a rescheduled vote on Tuesday.
An already fractious Brexit debate turned feverish Wednesday when lawmakers passed an amendment forcing the government to come back to Parliament with a new plan within three working days of the deal being rejected.
Pro-Brexit lawmakers said the amendment should not have been allowed. They accused Commons Speaker John Bercow, who is supposed to be the impartial arbiter of House rules, of tearing up parliamentary precedent and siding with anti-Brexit legislators.
Conservative legislator Crispin Blunt said it appeared to many “that the referee is no longer neutral.” Another Conservative, Adam Holloway, accused Bercow of having a rude anti-Brexit sticker on his car. (Bercow replied that the car, and the sticker, belonged to his wife).
Britain’s lively and partisan newspapers also weighed in. “Out of order,” blared the Daily Mail, while the tabloid Sun branded Bercow the “Speaker of the devil.”