David Davis urged Conservative MPs not to “tie the prime minister’s hands” over Britain’s departure from the EU as the Brexit secretary sought to head off an expected Commons rebellion on Monday.
A handful of MPs are expected to make a last-ditch attempt to modify the government’s Brexit plans as the Article 50 bill is debated once again in the chamber. But they are unlikely to muster sufficient numbers to prevent Theresa May, the prime minister, from completing the parliamentary process surrounding the legislation, which will empower her to begin exit talks with other European nations.
Some government figures hope that the formal process of invoking Article 50, which triggers those talks, could begin as early as Tuesday. Downing Street will only say publicly that it intends to start the process before the end of the month.
Rebel MPs are expected to include several senior figures including Ken Clarke, former chancellor, Nicky Morgan, former education secretary, and Anna Soubry, former business minister.
The government is trying to reverse two amendments that were passed by the Lords last week. One promised a “meaningful” parliamentary vote on the final deal with the EU, while the other gives protections to EU nationals living in Britain.
On Sunday the Commons foreign affairs committee waded into the debate arguing that failure to strike a Brexit deal would be “very destructive” for both the UK and Europe.
The cross-party report argued there was real possibility the talks could end with no deal, given that Mrs May has said she would rather walk away without a settlement than agree to a “bad deal”.
Despite the potentially grave consequences of the latter outcome, the committee said it had seen no evidence of serious contingency planning. It said ministers should order all Whitehall departments to draw up a “no deal plan”; if they did not do so, they would be guilty of a “serious dereliction of duty”.
Emily Thornberry, shadow foreign secretary, said: “It was reckless of the government to fail to plan for a Leave vote last year, and as this report shows, they are being just as reckless in their approach to the Article 50 negotiations, if not more so,” she said.
Looking ahead to the Commons debate, Mr Davis told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show on Sunday that he understood the importance of parliamentary accountability. But he said the Article 50 bill should be kept as simple as possible to give the prime minister room to manoeuvre. “This is a simple bill that is designed to do nothing more than put the result of the referendum into law, as the Supreme Court told us to do,” he said.
Mr Davis earlier argued that most people just wanted Mrs May to get on with the job, regardless of they voted in last summer’s EU referendum.
“By a majority of four to one, MPs passed straightforward legislation allowing the government to move ahead with no strings attached,” he said. “I will be asking MPs to send the legislation back to the House of Lords in its original form so that we can start building a global Britain and a strong new partnership with the EU.”
Peers are expected to bow to the will of the Commons rather than repeatedly seeking to amend the bill through a protracted period of parliamentary “ping-pong”. The legislation could therefore complete its final stages by Monday night, allowing Mrs May to trigger Article 50 the next day. The government is confident the process will begin by the end of the week at the very latest.
The prime minister is planning to make a statement to parliament on Tuesday on last week’s Brussels summit.
European leaders are preparing for an imminent start to the exit talks. Angela Merkel, German chancellor, said that if the UK invoked Article 50 this week, the other EU27 leaders could meet on April 6 to agree on guidelines for the talks.
The government has spent the last few days trying to dampen down a row over last week’s Budget, in which Philip Hammond, the chancellor, increased the rate of national insurance contributions paid by the self-employed.
Ms Soubry said at the weekend that criticism of Mr Hammond had been fuelled by “the Brexit brigade” who thought the chancellor was insufficiently gung-ho about leaving the EU. Critics were trying to “pick off Mr Hammond because he is opposed to walking away from the EU with no deal”, she claimed. “It is petty in the extreme.”
In a joint article for the Mail on Sunday, the Conservative MPs Alistair Burt and Jeremy Lefroy said parliament should have a proper role in the exit plans. “Let us reassure any Brexiters reading this,” they wrote. “There is no covert plot by Tory MPs to keep us in the EU. There is no ruthless operation to hijack the Commons timetable and use the Article 50 bill to reverse the will of the referendum.”
Instead, they argued that Parliament should have a final role at the end of the Brexit negotiations, not least in the “deeply worrying” circumstances that Britain may have no deal with the EU.