Theresa May heads for battle with Tory MPs over Brexit bill

Rowena Mason and Anushka Asthana
Michael Heseltine, one of those who led the rebellion, later told PA that he had lost his job as a government adviser. Photograph: HO/AFP/Getty Images

Theresa May is heading for a fresh battle with Conservative MPs over her Brexit bill next week, after peers voted to give parliament the right to veto the final outcome of her EU talks.

Downing Street said it would seek to overturn the amendment passed by the House of Lords on Tuesday by 366 to 268, arguing that giving parliament a blanket right of veto was against the national interest and would weaken May’s negotiating hand.

David Davis, the Brexit secretary, said the government would try to throw out the amendment and a previous one that would guarantee the rights of EU citizens in the UK when the Brexit bill returns to the House of Commons on Monday.

“It is disappointing that the House of Lords has chosen to make further changes to a bill that the Commons passed without amendment,” he said. “It has 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.”

However, a group of Conservative MPs is threatening to back the Lords amendment unless they have further verbal assurances from No 10 that parliament will get a proper vote on the outcome of negotiations.

About a dozen MPs are particularly unhappy that MPs and peers could get no opportunity to stop the UK crashing out of the EU on World Trade Organisation terms if the government does not manage to strike a deal.

May appears currently only to be offering a “take-it-or-leave-it” vote on whether to accept or reject the terms of any deal she makes with Brussels.

“We want to remove any uncertainty about securing a parliamentary vote in a timely manner that covers a deal and no deal,” said Neil Carmichael, a Tory MP pushing for a concession from the government on the terms of the vote. “It is critical parliament has an option to decide on the way forward if there is no deal.”

Anna Soubry, another Tory MP and former remain campaigner, said: “I just want people to be true to their consciences and true to our long-cherished belief in and defence of parliamentary sovereignty. We run the real risk that in the event of no deal we will have a hard Brexit, which my constituents did not vote for. It is appalling that parliament will deliberately be excluded from determining our country’s future in the event of no deal.”

In the Lords, the government argued on Tuesday that EU countries would be incentivised to offer the UK terrible terms if they knew that the UK parliament had the power to veto Brexit without a deal.

Lord Bridges, a Brexit minister, said the government could not possibly accept an amendment that would let parliament stop the UK from exiting without a deal with Brussels.

“What path must the prime minister then take? Is she to accept the terms on offer? Is she being told to secure a better deal? And, if so, what would happen if that can’t be achieved before the end of the two-year period?” he said.

“Or, in the silence of the amendment on this matter, is she to find a means to remain a member of the European Union? My lords, we don’t know any of these points.”

However, the House of Lords was unconvinced, voting by a majority of 98 in favour of giving parliament a say on the outcome of May’s negotiations.

Michael Heseltine, the Conservative former deputy prime minister, was one of those leading the rebellion against the government’s position, along with Labour, Liberal Democrat and crossbench peers.

“Everyone in this house knows that we now face the most momentous peacetime decision of our time,” he said. “And this amendment secures in law the government’s commitment ... to ensure that parliament is the ultimate custodian of our national sovereignty.

“It ensures that parliament has the critical role in determining the future that we will bequeath to generations of young people.”

Later that night, his words seem to have cost him his job. He told Press Association he had been sacked as a government adviser, where he had been focusing on a number of areas, including industrial strategy.

There were heated clashes in the Lords as a string of Conservative peers accused other members of trying to frustrate the progress of Breixt.

Lord Forsyth, the former Scotland secretary, said: “These amendments are trying to tie down the prime minister. Tie her down by her hair, by her arms, by her legs, in every conceivable way in order to prevent her getting an agreement, and in order to prevent us leaving the European Union.”

Nigel Lawson, a former Conservative chancellor, said the amendment forcing a parliamentary vote regardless of the outcome of talks would be an “unconscionable rejection of the referendum result, which would drive a far greater wedge between the political class and the British people than the dangerous gulf that already exists”.

The only practical effect would be to create a political crisis with highly damaging uncertainty for business and the economy that could only be resolved by a general election, he said.

Anna Soubry, former remain campaigner: ‘We run the real risk that in the event of no deal we will have a hard Brexit’. Photograph: Yui Mok/PA

But another former Tory cabinet minister, Douglas Hogg, denied supporters of the move wanted to stand in the way of the bill.

“The sole purpose is to ensure the outcome – agreed terms or no agreed terms – is subject to the unfettered discretion of parliament,” he said. “It is parliament, not the executive, which should be the final arbiter of our country’s future.”

The amendment would not only enable parliament to reject a “bad deal” but to “prevent Brexit altogether by refusing to allow the UK to leave the EU without agreement”, he added.

The bill will now proceed to the House of Commons on Monday, where MPs will have to decide whether to back the changes made by the Lords.

Only seven Conservative MPs defied the whip on the issue of a parliamentary vote when the bill first passed through the Commons, making the prospect of a defeat for May unlikely, but the rebels are still hoping to persuade No 10 into making a concession.

One Conservative MP said that most colleagues were “keeping their powder dry” to wait to see what the government had to say, but warned that people were running out of patience.

They claimed that Davis, the Brexit secretary, was offering assurances in private that there would be a vote, because MPs would engineer it. “But they need to say it unequivocally in public, that come what may there will be a vote. That there will be a vote even if there is no deal.” They said the ball was firmly in the government’s court. “They know what it needs to do to stop this,” they added, suggesting there were enough potential rebels to defeat the government in the Commons.

However, the majority of Conservative MPs are sympathetic to May’s desire to keep the bill straightforward, and are hoping for No 10 to back down rather than challenge them to rebel.

Nick Clegg, the Lib Dem former deputy prime minister, urged fellow MPs to “find the nerve” to stand up for parliamentary sovereignty like the House of Lords.

“I would urge MPs of all parties, including Brexiters who campaigned to leave on the basis of parliamentary sovereignty, to stop parliament being neutered,” he said.

If the Commons overturns both amendments, it is possible that the House of Lords could vote again to make changes to the Brexit bill, sending it back to MPs once again in a process known as “ping-pong”.

Labour has said it will not block the Brexit bill and so this process will not go on for too long. However, Labour sources said last night that its peers want to be satisfied that the Commons has given proper consideration to their amendments, hinting that they could send the legislation back at least one more time.

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