May seeks backbenchers’ support for crucial Brexit votes

Britain’s negotiating hand weakened if Lords amendments allowed to stand, PM argues

Pro-EU demonstrators during a protest outside of the Houses of Parliament in London. Photograph: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images

Pro-EU demonstrators during a protest outside of the Houses of Parliament in London. Photograph: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images


Theresa May has appealed to Conservative MPs for support ahead of two days of crucial votes on the EU Withdrawal Bill, warning that a defeat for the government would undermine her negotiating position over Brexit. She told the 1922 Committee of Conservative backbenchers on Monday night to think of the message sent to Brussels if amendments to the Bill approved by the House of Lords are not defeated in the Commons this week.

“I am trying to negotiate the best deal for Britain. I am confident I can get a deal that allows us to strike our own trade deals while having a border with the EU which is as frictionless as possible. But if the Lords amendments are allowed to stand, that negotiating position will be undermined,” she said.

The Lords approved 15 amendments to the Bill, which repeals the act that brought Britain into the common market and transposes EU law into British law. MPs will debate and vote on the amendments for six hours on Tuesday and a further six hours on Wednesday.

The government was working last night on a compromise over an amendment on the customs union, which some pro-EU Conservatives are backing. The Lords amendment calls on the government to report by October 31st on “steps taken to negotiate a customs union with the EU”. The compromise version being negotiated last night would instead require the government to report on steps to negotiate a customs “arrangement”.

Next month, MPs will debate an amendment to a trade Bill that would require Britain to remain in a customs union with the EU after Brexit, and some potential rebels have suggested they will wait for that vote to take a stand.

Final approval

The other amendment that could create problems for Ms May concerns the role of parliament in approving the final Brexit deal. The Lords amendment would not only give parliament a veto over the withdrawal agreement with the EU but a right to issue binding instructions to the government on how to proceed with the negotiations after that.

Brexiteers fear that the Lords amendment would allow parliament to stop Brexit by rejecting the withdrawal agreement but telling the government not to leave the EU without a deal. The government has proposed its own version of the amendment, which would give parliament a veto over the withdrawal agreement and the framework for a future relationship with the EU, promising to give MPs a vote on the deal before it goes to the European Parliament for ratification.

The government’s version would not, however, allow parliament to instruct the government how to proceed with negotiations, instead requiring a minister to report to MPs on what the government planned to do next.

Labour has imposed a three-line whip on its MPs, telling them to vote in favour of all House of Lords amendments except one, on remaining in the European Economic Area. The Labour leadership has told its MPs to abstain on that amendment and to vote instead for its own alternative, which calls for full access to the single market.