The House of Lords has voted in support of a requirement for the government to bring the final terms of Britain’s exit from the EU before parliament for its approval, inflicting a second defeat on Theresa May’s Brexit strategy in the space of a week.
With 634 peers voting — the largest number of peers to participate in a vote in the upper chamber on record, according to the House of Lords library — the Lords backed the amendment to the Article 50 bill by 366 to 268, a majority of 98, disregarding a warning from the prime minister that to do so would undermine her negotiating position.
A succession of Tory peers spoke out against the prime minister. Patrick Cormack urged the chamber to “send a message” to Mrs May and “vote to put parliament in its rightful place”, while Michael Heseltine said that those who had voted Remain in last year’s referendum “have a right to be heard”, adding: “The fightback starts here.”
The amendment “secures in law the government’s commitment to ensure parliament is the custodian of our national sovereignty”, Lord Heseltine said.
David Davis, the Brexit secretary, called the Lords vote “disappointing”. He said the Article 50 bill had “a straightforward purpose: to enact the referendum result and allow the government to get on with negotiating a new partnership with the EU”.
“It is clear that some in the Lords would seek to frustrate that process, and it is the government’s intention to ensure that does not happen. We will now aim to overturn these amendments in the House of Commons.”
The Tory rebel peers were also criticised by some of their fellow Conservatives, including Nigel Lawson, the Eurosceptic former chancellor, who accused them of wanting to “have their cake and eat it”. Giving parliament the power to prevent Brexit would be “an unconscionable rejection of the referendum result” that could trigger a constitutional crisis, he said.
George Bridges, a minister in the Brexit department, said the amendment was “unnecessary, damaging to the national interest and may be used to block the intention of the British people”.
The amendment to the legislation would give MPs and peers a vote on the terms of Britain’s exit early enough for parliament to insist that Mrs May return to Brussels to seek better terms.
By contrast, the prime minister wants parliament to be offered a “take it or leave it” vote to rubber stamp a deal before it is put before the European Parliament. If parliament at Westminster rejected the deal, the UK would be left to trade with the EU under the tariff regime of the World Trade Organisation.
The Lords also defied the prime minister last week, voting by an overwhelming majority to back an amendment that would guarantee the rights of EU citizens living in the UK.
The bill — including the two amendments — now returns to the Commons, where Downing Street is confident it has the numbers to overturn the changes. Mrs May is likely to have the support of the Democratic Unionist party, which fields eight MPs, while a handful of Eurosceptic Labour MPs might also back her.
The prime minister has a working majority of just 17 and faces a potential rebellion by pro-EU Conservatives. Opposition aides estimated that about 20 Tory MPs were considering supporting the amendments but acknowledged that many were likely to duck a direct confrontation with government whips.
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