UK Minister Phillip Lee Resigns Ahead of Brexit Bill Showdown

British lawmakers are set to vote on amendments to the legislation that will extricate the U.K. from the European Union.

British lawmakers are set to vote on amendments to the legislation that will extricate the U.K. from the European Union.


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Alberto Pezzali/Zuma Press

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LONDON—A British minister resigned unexpectedly Tuesday citing the government’s approach to Brexit, hours ahead of a showdown in Parliament over whether lawmakers can wrest some control from the government of the deal to leave the European Union.

The votes in the House of Commons, the elected chamber, could influence negotiations over the future relationship between the EU and the U.K. after Brexit. The results could also deliver a further blow to Prime Minister Theresa May’s authority, which was severely damaged when she lost her parliamentary majority after calling a general election last year.

The outcome of the votes hangs in part on how many lawmakers in Mrs. May’s Conservative Party rebel against the government. As many as 11 Conservatives have opposed key parts of the government’s Brexit legislation in previous votes, enough to inflict defeat on Mrs. May.

The resignation of Phillip Lee, a junior minister in the Ministry of Justice who supported remaining in the EU during the 2016 referendum on membership of the bloc, further complicates the government’s effort to win the support of Parliament. Mr. Lee said he would side with fellow Conservative Party rebels in a vote Tuesday to give Parliament power to reject any Brexit deal it deems unsatisfactory.

Phillip Lee speaks in the House of Commons in January.

Phillip Lee speaks in the House of Commons in January.


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ho/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Lawmakers are expected to vote Tuesday and Wednesday on more than a dozen amendments to the government’s flagship Brexit bill. The most perilous moment for Mrs. May will come when lawmakers vote late afternoon Tuesday on the amendment that would give Parliament the power to reject whatever Brexit deal ministers agree—and send the government back to the negotiating table with fresh instructions.

David Davis, Brexit Secretary, has warned that such a power would fatally weaken the government’s bargaining position with Brussels.

Still, defeat for the government might be avoided. Ministers have proposed an alternative amendment to the legislation that would allow Parliament to vote on any Brexit deal but wouldn’t give lawmakers any power over what happens next. Instead, ministers would have 28 days to come up with new proposals to soothe lawmakers’ concerns.

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Mujtaba Rahman, managing director for Europe at consultancy Eurasia Group, said Tuesday he thought this approach might allow Mrs. May to “scrape through” the coming vote.

Mr. Lee’s resignation wasn’t widely signaled beforehand. In a statement, the minister expressed dissatisfaction with the government’s approach to the Brexit negotiations, where it is seeking to leave the EU’s single market and its customs union. The customs union establishes tariff-free trade among members of the EU and sets common tariffs on goods entering from nonmember countries.

He said Brexit, as being 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.

“If Brexit is worth doing, then it is certainly worth doing well; regardless of how long that takes,” he said in the statement, adding that he supported a popular vote on the outcome of the negotiations.

“If in the future, I am to look my children in the eye and honestly say I did my best for them, I cannot, in all good conscience, support how our country’s current exit from the EU looks set to be delivered,” he said in the statement.

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

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