Call off Brexit bullies or face defeat, Conservative peers tell May

Toby Helm and Michael Savage
Theresa May faced rebellion from 11 of her party’s MPs last week. Photograph: John Thys/AFP/Getty Images

Theresa May was warned on Sunday by Tory peers that she will face a string of parliamentary defeats over Europe in the House of Lords if she tries to “bully” members of the second chamber into backing an extreme form of Brexit.

After 11 Conservative MPs joined opposition parties to inflict a humiliating loss on the government last week, Tory grandees are warning that the spirit of rebellion will spread to the Lords unless May shows she respects parliament and decisively rejects those with “extreme views” in her own party.

Writing in the Observer, two Tory peers, the former pensions minister Ros Altmann and Patience Wheatcroft, a former editor of the Sunday Telegraph, say they are appalled at the insults heaped by hardline Brexiters on MPs who voted with their consciences, and at the “strong-arm” tactics of the Tory whips.

Staying in the single market and customs union


The UK could sign up to all the EU’s rules and regulations, staying in the single market – which provides, free movement of goods, services and people – and the customs union, in which EU members agree tariffs on external states. Freedom of movement would continue and the UK would keep paying into the Brussels pot. We would continue to have unfettered access to EU trade, but the pledge to “take back control” of laws, borders and money would not have been fulfilled. This is an unlikely outcome and one that may be possible only by reversing the Brexit decision, after a second referendum or election.


The Norway model


Britain could follow Norway, which is in the single market, is subject to freedom of movement rules and pays a fee to Brussels – but  is outside the customs union. That combination would tie Britain to EU regulations but allow it to sign trade deals of its own. A “Norway-minus” deal is more likely. That would see the UK leave the single market and customs union and end free movement of people. But Britain would align its rules and regulations with Brussels, hoping this would allow a greater degree of market access. The UK would still be subject to EU rules.


The Canada deal


A comprehensive trade deal like the one handed to Canada would help British traders, as it would lower or eliminate tariffs. But there would be little on offer for the UK services industry. It is a bad outcome for financial services. Such a deal would leave Britain free to diverge from EU rules and regulations but that in turn would lead to border checks and the rise of other “non-tariff barriers” to trade. It would leave Britain free to forge new trade deals with other nations. Many in Brussels see this as a likely outcome, based on Theresa May’s direction so far.


No deal


Britain leaves with no trade deal, meaning that all trade is governed by World Trade Organisation rules. Tariffs would be high, queues at the border long and the Irish border issue severe. In the short term, British aircraft might be unable to fly to some European destinations. The UK would quickly need to establish  bilateral agreements to deal with the consquences, but the country would be free to take whatever future direction it wishes. It may need to deregulate to attract international business – a very different future and a lot of disruption.


They say it is vital to democracy that parliamentarians be given the right to assess the Brexit deal on behalf of the British people without being threatened or bullied, and suggest that the aggression of Tory party managers has helped create a “toxic atmosphere”, not only in parliament but across the UK.

Altmann and Wheatcroft write: “The resulting appalling insults from Brexiters, calls for expulsion from the party, and even death threats, are worrying symptoms of the toxic atmosphere which has been created in our country.”

They add: “There are many moderate Conservatives in both Houses of Parliament who are deeply concerned that some in our party are so desperate to leave the EU, with or without a deal, that they believe any cost is justified to bring Brexit. They maintain ‘freedom is priceless’ but this extreme view does not reflect public opinion.”

The two peers say Conservative members of the House of Lords, in which there was a large pro-Remain majority, will not take kindly to being told by the Tory whips and the executive what to think about Brexit and how to vote.

“Mindful of the monumental importance for future generations of getting Brexit right, the Lords is unlikely to be receptive to bullying over a restricted timetable or vigorous whipping to toe the party line,” they say.

“The people voted to ‘take back control’ but that has to mean control by parliament, not a small group with extreme views or an executive that will brook no challenge. It is parliament that must have the final say on whether the deal that is negotiated for breaking away from the EU ... is in the UK’s best interests.”

Labour’s former deputy leader Harriet Harman is to raise serious concerns in the Commons on Monday about death threats issued against Tory MPs who rebelled last week. Harman said the atmosphere had been created by a combination of the Brexit debate, social media and pro-Brexit newspapers.

“We have to show that we do not think it is right that people are afraid to vote in parliament for what they think is right because they are afraid they will face death threats,” she said. It was up to everyone with responsibility – including internet service providers – to think about how they can work together to preserve the democratic system.

The Tory MP Sarah Wollaston, one of the 11 Tory rebels, has tweeted that she has received ugly threats and said the Daily Mail, which described the rebels as “self-consumed malcontents” after the vote, should think about the consequences of its actions and tone. “Are you proud?” she asked the Daily Mail. “I’ve also been deluged by the traitors and hanging vibe. Time to get a grip and a sense of proportion before deliberately unleashing all this incitement to violence.”

EU citizens


  • EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens in the rest of the EU have the right to stay. Rights of their children and those of partners in existing “durable relationships” are also guaranteed.
  • UK courts will preside over enforcing rights over EU citizens in Britain but can refer unclear cases to the European court of justice for eight years after withdrawal.


Irish border


  • The agreement promises to ensure there will be no hard border and to uphold the Belfast agreement.
  • It makes clear the whole of the UK, including Northern Ireland, will be leaving the customs union.
  • It leaves unclear how an open border will be achieved but says in the absence of a later agreement, the UK will ensure “full alignment” with the rules of the customs union and single market that uphold the Good Friday agreement. 
  • However, the concession secured by the DUP is that no new regulatory barriers will be allowed between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK without the permission of Stormont in the interest of upholding the Good Friday agreement.


Money


  • There is no figure on how much the UK is expected to pay but the document sets out how the bill will be calculated – expected to be between £35bn and £39bn.
  • The UK agrees to continue to pay into the EU budget as normal in 2019 and 2020.
  • It also agrees to pay its liabilities such as pension contributions.


Other issues


  • The two sides agreed there would be need for cooperation on nuclear regulation and police and security issues.
  • There was an agreement to ensure continued availability of products on the market before withdrawal and to minimise disruption for businesses and consumers.


It comes as a new poll found a majority backing remaining inside the EU. The BMG poll for the Independent found 51% favoured staying in, with 41% backing Brexit. After people who said they did not know were removed, it found 55.5% in favour of Remain and 44.5% for Leave.

The Brexit withdrawal bill will head to the House of Lords in the new year. While peers will not seek to block or delay Brexit, there is a growing view that if the kind of cross-party cooperation that was achieved by opponents of a hard Brexit in the Commons is repeated, they can push the lower house’s change into a series of modifications to the bill.

MPs say the Lords is likely to feel more emboldened to flex its muscles because the government was defeated last week.

The Labour peer Andrew Adonis said last night: “The withdrawal bill will have a nightmare passage through the Lords. We respect the fact that it passed the Commons, so won’t reject the principle of withdrawal.

“Our job is to make withdrawal compatible with the government’s own promises which – even with the latest changes – still aren’t satisfied in respect of a ‘meaningful vote’ on the final terms, ‘no hard border’ in Ireland and the rights of EU citizens in the UK.

“We are facing the biggest conflict in the Lords since Irish Home Rule before the first world war, and the stakes are equally high.”

Another Tory peer, Charles Powell, Margaret Thatcher’s former foreign policy adviser, said he believed division in the Tory party over Europe ran so deep that it was “more or less bound to split at some point”.

He added that there was more support for a second referendum on Brexit in the Lords than the Commons, “and that is one of the things on which you may find a harder push in the Lords”.

“There is even less support in the Lords for Brexit than in the Commons and they will contest all those clauses contested in the Commons, and probably quite a few more. It can hardly not be clear to the Lords that this was in the manifesto and endorsed in a referendum and the case for the non-elected house making an attempt that could be seen as derailing it beyond what the Commons does is not likely to go down well in public opinion.”

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