May Will Seek to Overturn Lords Brexit Vote for EU Nationals

  • Labour, Lib Dems back European migrants’ right to stay in U.K.
  • Lawmakers in Commons to debate the amended bill March 13-14

Jim O'Neill Expects Another House of Lords Brexit Loss

U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May will seek to overturn the first parliamentary defeat for her bill to trigger Brexit after the House of Lords rebuffed a government plea to leave it intact.

The U.K.’s unelected upper house voted by 358 votes to 256 on Wednesday in favor of an amendment to the draft law that would protect the right of European Union nationals to remain living in Britain when the country leaves the bloc.

“The prime minister has made clear her intention that the bill should be passed unamended,” May’s spokesman, Greg Swift, told reporters in London on Thursday. “MPs have already voted it through unamended in the first stage, so we expect that to be the case again.”

Securing the legal status of Europeans working in the U.K. is a critical priority for businesses that could face potential labor shortages. The government defeat is a blow to May’s authority on Brexit and complicates her timetable for launching negotiations.

She will still trigger talks by her self-imposed deadline of March 31, Swift said. The Commons is set to debate the amended bill on March 13 and March 14, according to a government official who asked not to be named. That would allow May to gain royal assent and begin the Brexit process under Article 50 of the EU’s Lisbon Treaty as early as March 15.

Commons Vote

The Lords may not have the appetite to extend the fight if the amendment is rejected in the Commons, where May’s Conservative Party has a slender majority.

Labour’s Brexit spokesman Keir Starmer said on Twitter his party, the main opposition, will back the amendment. Even so, Tory rebels wary of May’s Brexit plans may not choose to make it the issue on which they defy the prime minister, the BBC reported, citing unidentified lawmakers.

Molly Meacher, who sits as an independent lawmaker in the House of Lords, told BBC Radio 4 that there are as many as 30 Tory lawmakers in the Commons who are prepared to back the amendment.

“On the basis of morality and principle” the vote can be won in the Commons, she said. Even so, “the Tory whips in the Commons are going to work extremely hard with all sorts of bribes to get these people to vote with the government.”

The premier’s next challenge will come on March 7, when the Lords completes its scrutiny of the bill. Dick Newby, leader of the Liberal Democrats in the Lords, said he expects three more amendments to be voted on next week, covering Northern Ireland, a second referendum and providing for a “substantive” vote in Parliament on May’s eventual Brexit deal.

May is seeking speedy parliamentary approval for the bill, which gives her the power to pull the trigger. Once Article 50 is invoked, formal Brexit talks begin and Britain will be on the legal path out of the EU.

While the premier has repeatedly said she wants to guarantee the rights of more than 3 million EU citizens in the U.K., she says she must at the same time receive reciprocal guarantees for Britons abroad. Critics say May is using people’s lives as negotiating capital.

Brexit Secretary David Davis said a deal on citizens’ rights will be an early priority in divorce talks and he blamed other EU nations for blocking an agreement before Article 50 is triggered.

“We want to come to a generous arrangement for everyone from the EU inside the United Kingdom,” Davis told reporters in Copenhagen after a meeting with Danish Foreign Minister Anders Samuelsen. “That’s not just about the right to remain, it’s about things like pensions, welfare, social support and so on,” he said. “I would hope we get some agreement in principle very, very soon.”

Davis also said he expects Britain and the EU to come to an “amicable agreement” over claims for exit payments to the bloc, which some estimates suggest could amount to 60 billion euros ($63 billion).

— With assistance by Svenja O'Donnell, and Peter Levring

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