British Prime Minister Theresa May‘s Conservative minority government secured lawmakers’ backing for its legislative plans by a narrow margin Thursday, but only after making a sudden concession on abortion funding to stave off defeat.
The House of Commons voted by 323 to 309 to approve last week’s Queen’s Speech, which laid out the government’s agenda for the next two years.
The slimmed-down package jettisoned several policy pledges made by the Conservatives before Britain’s June 8 election, which saw May’s party humiliatingly stripped of its parliamentary majority.
Rejection of its legislative plan would have been a major – and possibly fatal – blow to May’s already weakened administration, which struck a deal with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party this week to make sure it can win key votes.
May left a gathering of European leaders in Germany early to fly back for the vote, which ministers knew would be close.
May called the snap election in a misjudged attempt to bolster her majority and strengthen her authority during talks on Britain’s departure from the European Union. Instead, it left her weakened at home and abroad, and tipped Parliament into a new era of deal-making, compromise and concessions.
In a sign of the government’s fragile hold on power, government ministers were forced into a major concession hours before the vote. Fearing defeat on an opposition amendment, ministers said they would pay for women from Northern Ireland to travel to England for abortions.
Abortion is banned in Northern Ireland unless a woman’s life or mental health is in danger, and hundreds of women a year travel to other parts of the U.K. to terminate pregnancies. They must pay for the abortions, as well as for travel costs.
Labour Party lawmaker Stella Creasy obtained a vote on a motion calling for the government to ensure that women from Northern Ireland have access to free abortions. Several Conservative legislators indicated they would support the amendment because it corrected a longstanding injustice, prompting the government’s scramble to change its policy.
In a letter to lawmakers, Equalities Minister Justine Greening said women from Northern Ireland had previously been asked to pay, but “from now on it is our proposal that this will no longer happen.”
Creasy said the government’s about-face was “very encouraging” and agreed to withdraw her amendment without a vote.
“There is a recognition that there has been an injustice for too long,” she said.
This month’s election left the Conservatives with 317 of the 650 seats in Parliament, several short of a majority, while Labour won a better-than-anticipated 262 seats.
Creasy’s amendment was one of several attempts by the Labour opposition to defeat the weakened government over its plans for the economy and for Britain’s exit from the European Union.
Other Labour proposals called on the government to reverse cuts to public spending, to lift a pay cap on civil servants and the emergency services and to soften the Brexit terms to keep full access to the bloc’s single market.
The votes also produced some awkward moments for Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. One of his own lawmakers put forward a call for the U.K. to remain in the single market after it leaves the EU, an idea Corbyn has rejected. The motion was defeated, but dozens of Labour legislators defied their leader and backed it.
The government defeated all the proposed changes with support from Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionists, a Loyalist party whose 10 lawmakers have agreed to back the Conservatives on key votes.
The DUP deal – secured with a promise of 1 billion pounds ($1.29 billion) in new spending for Northern Ireland – has dismayed some Conservatives on account of the smaller party’s socially conservative policies on issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage.
It has also complicated attempts to restore a power-sharing administration in Belfast, drawing accusations from the Irish nationalist party Sinn Fein that the British government has abandoned its position of neutrality toward Northern Ireland’s rival political forces.
UK Prime Minister May survives first test as government legislation passed