No 10 refuses to budge on Brexit bill, despite heavy defeat in Lords

Jessica Elgot Political correspondent
The Brexit secretary, David Davis, with the Danish foreign minister, Anders Samuelsen, in Copenhagen. Photograph: Jens Dresling/AP

The government is determined that the bill to trigger article 50 will not be altered, even if a standoff ensues with peers who backed an amendment to guarantee the rights of EU citizens on Wednesday night, No 10 has said.

However, the Brexit secretary, David Davis, was at pains to stress on Thursday that the government had a desire to make an early deal on the rights of EU citizens, including on their healthcare and pensions rights, with the hope of convincing MPs and peers to allow the bill through without the amendment when it returns to both houses.

At a meeting with the Danish foreign minister, Anders Samuelsen, he said: “We’ve said very, very clearly that we want to come to a generous arrangement for everybody in the European Union. And that is not just about the right to remain which is what people mostly focus on but things like pensions and healthcare, social support, welfare as well. We want to get that all right and we want to do it soon.”

Davis said that if the UK government “had had our way” an agreement in principle would have been made in December – but not all EU countries were prepared to make that commitment.

“It will be the first thing on our agenda,” he said. “I would hope that we would get some agreement in principle very, very soon, as soon as the negotiation process starts.”

Davis said he did not want to “pre-empt every single debate” that would go on over the next few weeks in the houses of parliament but suggested the bill would again sail through the Commons without amendments. “When it comes back to the lower house, we will see what the decision is. I think you’ll find they may have a different view,” he said.

No 10 reiterated on Thursday morning that the government had no intention of budging on the issue of EU citizens’ future status, despite its heavy defeat in the Lords.

A Downing Street spokesman said Theresa May did not expect to have to make concessions to get the bill through: “The prime minister has made clear her intention that the bill should be passed unamended.”

No 10 said: “The Lords has its own role to carry out, and it’s important that it carries that out. It’s right that they scrutinise legislation that’s passed up to them. I think we’ve seen a very healthy and vigorous debate in the Lords, but we’re very clear on our ambition that this bill be passed unamended.”

One crossbench peer said she was hopeful Tory rebels would decide to defy the whip “on the basis of morality and principle” when the bill was sent back to the Commons with the amendment before passing back to the Lords, in a process known as “ping pong”.

Molly Meacher said she believed 30 Tories were saying they would vote to support the amendment, though it is thought to be highly unlikely so many will ultimately do so.

“Tories are principled people, generally,” Lady Meacher told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. “Frankly this is a moral issue, the government has created a problem for nearly 4 million people living and working in this country.”

Any “ping pong” between the Commons and the Lords over the final wording of the bill is likely to take place on 13 and 14 March, with sources suggesting that May could send formal notification of the UK’s decision to exit the EU as early as the following day, though nothing has been formally confirmed.

The shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, said that once the formal process for putting the bill on the statute book was over, Labour must return to making big picture arguments about the country’s future outside the EU, saying the debate so far had been “too narrow, technical and dispiriting”.

“It is a source of real frustration that so far the [Brexit] debate has been focused too much on parliament and process, and not enough on the principles and priorities that will shape the Brexit deal and our future relationship with the EU,” he wrote in an article for the New European newspaper.

Starmer said Labour should make the case for “an internationalist approach to our future relationship with the EU that is rooted in our values of cooperation, collaboration, social justice and economic fairness”.

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