Brexit: Path clear for Theresa May to trigger Article 50 after bill clears Lords

Tom Powell

The path is now clear for Theresa May to begin Brexit negotiations after the Lords passed her Brexit Bill unamended.

After weeks of bitter wrangling in both Houses, the Government comfortably fought off two Liberal Democrat bids to again amend the Brexit Bill in the Lords.

In a day of drama, the Commons voted to reject two changes made by peers to the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill, which gives the Prime Minister the power to trigger the two-year Brexit talks.

MPs first voted against a proposal to unilaterally guarantee the rights of EU nationals living in the UK within three months, by 335 votes to 287, a majority of 48.

They then voted against an amendment designed to give Parliament a "meaningful" vote on the final deal, by 331 votes to 286, a majority of 45.

Later in the Lords, with Brexit Secretary David Davis watching from the bar of the House, a Liberal Democrat move to reinsert the amendment on the rights of EU nationals living in the UK was rejected by 274 votes to 135, Government majority 139.

Peers then voted 274 to 118, Government majority 156, against a move to insist on a "meaningful" vote on the final deal.

The Prime Minister looks set to wait another fortnight before kicking off the two-year process of negotiating departure under Article 50 of the EU treaties, with formal notification expected to take place in the last week of March.

Mrs May's official spokesman played down suggestions that the PM had delayed notification due to Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon's announcement that she plans to stage a second independence referendum in the run-up to the expected date of Brexit in spring 2019.

Mrs May needs only to await royal assent of the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill before triggering Article 50.

There was widespread speculation in Westminster that she could do so as early as Tuesday, when she is scheduled to make a statement on Europe to the Commons.

But her spokesman said the PM had always said she would notify the European Council of the UK's intention to leave by the end of March, adding: "I've said 'end' many times but it would seem I didn't put it in capital letters strongly enough."

Notification in the last week of March would not only avoid clashing with the general election taking place on Wednesday in the Netherlands, but would also delay the formal opening of negotiations until after a special summit in Rome on March 25 when the remaining 27 member states will celebrate the EU's 60th anniversary.

The Prime Minister's European counterparts had been prepared for her to make an announcement this week, with April 6 pencilled in as the date for a meeting of the 27 other EU leaders to respond to the situation - a gathering which will now be pushed back until later that month.

Peers had previously backed a Labour-led change to the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill which called for ministers to bring forward proposals within three months of the triggering of Brexit talks to ensure the rights of EU nationals continue.

Just two Conservative MPs voted against the Government's attempt to overturn the amendment on EU nationals. They were Alex Chalk (Cheltenham) and Tania Mathias (Twickenham).

The two Tories were joined by 210 Labour MPs, 54 SNP, nine Liberal Democrats, three SDLP, three Plaid Cymru, two Ulster Unionist Party, three independents and Green Party MP Caroline Lucas in opposing the Government.

Six Labour MPs voted with the Government, including Frank Field (Birkenhead), Kate Hoey (Vauxhall), Kelvin Hopkins (Luton North), Rob Marris (Wolverhampton South West), Graham Stringer (Blackley and Broughton) and Gisela Stuart (Birmingham Edgbaston).

They were joined by 319 Conservatives, eight DUP, Ukip's Douglas Carswell and independent Simon Danczuk.

Lord Bridges of Headley, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union speaks in the House of Lords (PA)

Around 3.2 million EU citizens live in the UK while more than a million British expats reside in other EU member states.

Brexit Secretary David Davis earlier told MPs he expected a "swift" agreement with EU member states on the issue.

A potential Tory rebellion on the second vote - to overturn the proposal from peers for a "meaningful" vote - failed to materialise.

Division list analysis shows no Tories opposed the Government's motion to disagree with the Lords amendment.

A number of Tory MPs who expressed concerns over the Government's approach appeared to abstain on the meaningful vote amendment by not voting.

They included former ministers Nicky Morgan and Anna Soubry, former attorney general Dominic Grieve, Justice Select Committee chairman Bob Neill, as well as backbenchers Heidi Allen (South Cambridgeshire) and Ben Howlett (Bath).

There were 213 Labour MPs who voted against removing the meaningful vote amendment from the Bill and they were joined by 54 SNP MPs.

Nine Liberal Democrats, three independent, three Plaid Cymru, three SDLP and Green MP Ms Lucas also voted against removal.

The Government's position was backed by 313 Tory MPs, eight DUP, six Labour, two UUP, Ukip's Mr Carswell and independent Mr Danczuk.

The six Labour MPs were: Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley), Mr Field, Ms Hoey, Mr Hopkins, Mr Stringer and Ms Stuart.

As the Bill returned to the Lords, Lord Bridges said withdrawal from the EU was "one of the most momentous" steps the UK would take.

He said he was not "deaf to people's concerns" and did not dismiss them as "portraying a lack of patriotism", but the decision to quit the EU had been made and the Bill delivered on it.

The Lords was "perfectly entitled" to ask the Commons to think again and had done so, but once again MPs had decided to pass the Bill without amendment.