Tory Rebels to Pass Battle Over May's Key Brexit Bill to Lords

  • EU Withdrawal Bill expected to pass Commons test this week
  • May faces Brexit bill roadblocks from Corbyn, Sturgeon

Theresa May

Photographer: Luke MacGregor/Bloomberg

Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit legislation returns to Parliament this week, where pro-European Conservative lawmakers who stung her once before will hold their fire and leave the fight for more changes to allies in the upper house.

Instead of rebelling again, Tories seeking to preserve ties with the European Union will use the debate to send signals the House of Lords, where members are overwhelmingly anti-Brexit, according to two Tory lawmakers with knowledge of the situation. The European Union Withdrawal Bill returns for debate in the lower chamber on Tuesday and Wednesday. 

May can still expect roadblocks to be put up by opposition Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn and Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who both said Sunday they’ll oppose the bill in its current form. That underlines the challenge for the government in passing the legislation, which aims to enshrine all EU laws in domestic legislation to smooth Brexit. Labour submitted five amendments for debate this week.

Jeremy Corbyn

Photographer: Jason Alden/Bloomberg

“We’ve set down our lines on that, which are about democratic accountability, are about protection of workers, environment and consumer rights, and are about human rights,” Corbyn said in an interview on ITV’s “Peston on Sunday” show. “If our tests are not met by the government, then we will vote against the bill.”

Sturgeon said she isn’t ready to recommend approval of the bill by Scottish lawmakers.

Vulnerable to Rebellion

While May’s alliance with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party means her minority administration has the votes to win, she would have been vulnerable to any rebellion by “Remain”-supporting Tories. In December, they defied her by forcing through a provision for Parliament to hold a meaningful vote on the final terms of the Brexit deal with the EU.

This week, they’ll instead signal to the Lords the need to make changes on human rights and on returning powers to devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, said one of the lawmakers, who asked not to be identified talking about a future debate.

After clearing the Commons, the bill goes to the Lords, where peers are more hostile to Brexit. It’s due for its first two days of debate in the upper chamber on Jan. 30 and 31.

“There is a large majority of people in the Lords who feel that Brexit is a national disaster,” Dick Newby, leader of the Liberal Democrats’ 100 peers in the upper chamber, said in an interview on Jan. 9. He indicated that peers will seek to change the bill, depending on what concessions the government makes in the Commons.

Not Alone

The Liberal Democrats won’t be alone in the Lords in trying to reverse Brexit. Many Labour peers also oppose leaving the EU. One of them, Andrew Adonis, quit as May’s infrastructure adviser at the end of 2017, describing the bill as “the worst legislation of my lifetime,” and vowing to “oppose it relentlessly from the Labour benches.” On Sunday, Adonis told ITV that he now thinks a second referendum is “inevitable” on the terms May secures in any final Brexit deal.

May’s Tories don’t have a majority in the Lords to pass her legislation, so the government will have to seek consensus. There’s the potential for a Tory rebellion, too, after more than a dozen Conservative peers, including Ros Altmann, a former minister, Patience Wheatcroft, and Douglas Hogg voted against elements of last year’s bill to trigger Brexit.

Another potential barrier comes from outside Westminster. The final law must also be approved by the semi-autonomous legislatures of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, under a non-binding convention known as “legislative consent.” That may not be forthcoming.

Nicola Sturgeon on Jan. 14.

Photographer: Jeff Overs/BBC

‘Power Grab’

“Right now, I cannot and will not recommend to the Scottish Parliament approval of the withdrawal bill, because it’s a power grab on the powers of the Scottish Parliament,” Sturgeon said on Sunday on BBC television’s “Andrew Marr Show.” She acknowledged that a vote in the Scottish chamber isn’t binding but warned that it’s “unthinkable” the Parliament in London would ignore it.

“We’ve never been in this territory before,” Sturgeon said. She and her Welsh counterpart, Carwyn Jones, attacked the bill in July and have yet to reach a compromise with May.

The government has proposed its own amendments to allay some of the rebel concerns. The proposals would limit the powers of ministers to make revisions without consulting lawmakers, grant additional law-changing ability to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and let citizens and businesses begin legal proceedings to appeal against changes in the law for three months after Britain leaves the EU.

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