U.K.'s May Said to Be Ready for Lords to Rewrite Brexit Bill

  • Government sets aside date for clash with unelected House
  • Labour ‘confident’ can defeat May on EU citizens, binding vote

BlackRock's Harrison Says U.K. Meets Article 50 Timeline

U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May’s government is setting aside time for a Parliamentary battle to overturn changes she fears could be made to her draft Brexit law when it’s debated in the House of Lords this week.

May and her team demand that unelected legislators in the upper house of Parliament not rewrite the 137-word European Union withdrawal bill while scrutinizing it. The premier needs Parliament to approve the law so she can start the formal Brexit process by invoking Article 50 of the EU treaty by the end of March.

However, a growing number of Conservative rebels are preparing to join opposition lawmakers from the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties in an attempt to defeat May in the House of Lords, which would force her to ask the elected House of Commons to vote again to undo the changes. 

May’s team have now told Conservatives to be ready to vote the week of March 13, with the expectation that the law will be sent back and forth as the Commons overturns changes made by the Lords, according to a person familiar with the situation who declined to be named discussing confidential plans.

“Our role in the House of Lords is indeed to send something back to the Commons if we think it has been decided too hastily,” Ros Altmann, a Conservative legislator in the Lords, said in an interview by phone. “Our function is to scrutinize this properly, not simply to toe the line.”

Key Demands

With Labour promising not to try to stop the Brexit law, there is little chance May will lose the bill entirely. However, two key demands for changes are the most likely to result in government defeats during detailed bill scrutiny: a guarantee that EU citizens will be able to stay in the U.K. after it leaves the bloc, and a legally binding promise of a vote for Parliament on whether to accept the outcome of May’s Brexit negotiations in two years’ time.

“Most members of the House would welcome some movement from the government voluntarily on these issues,” Altmann said.

Among Tories planning to support an amendment that would guarantee Parliament a final vote on May’s Brexit deal is Michael Heseltine, a former deputy prime minister who served as a minister in Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet. If public opinion turns against Brexit during two years of negotiations, then Parliament must have “the means to reflect that, whether by election, referendum or rethink,” Heseltine wrote in The Mail on Sunday newspaper.

European Rights

The main opposition Labour Party expects to have enough support from members of other parties in the Lords to win a vote on its amendment protecting the rights of Europeans to stay in the U.K. after Brexit. “I am confident that the House of Lords will take a very strong view on it,” Angela Smith, Labour’s leader in the Lords, told Huffington Post on Sunday.

May’s draft law aims to give her the legal authority to trigger Article 50, firing the starting gun on Brexit negotiations. The premier’s team is adamant that the bill must be passed without amendments in order to give her as much flexibility in the talks as possible. 

“We need to have as a government the freedom to go and negotiate with 27 other governments the best deal we can for the U.K.,” Cabinet minister David Lidington told BBC radio on Sunday. “It is not always the best tactic to put something into the inflexible form of legislation.”

Debate on Monday is likely to focus on the impact of Brexit on the Northern Ireland peace deal, with the questions of a final vote for Parliament and a guarantee for EU citizens expected to be discussed in the Lords on Wednesday. Votes could be called on either day or when the bill moves to its next stage in the Lords on March 7.

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