Second defeat for Theresa May over Brexit in House of Lords

Archbishop of Canterbury warns another referendum on EU would worsen divisions

Theresa May's government has suffered a second defeat over Brexit in the House of Lords, which on Tuesday backed a call for Parliament to be given a "meaningful vote" on the final deal agreed with the European Union. Peers voted by 366 to 268 in favour of an amendment calling for the vote to the Bill authorising the prime minister to trigger article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty and start formal exit talks.

Last week, the House of Lords backed an amendment calling for the rights of EU citizens now living in Britain to be guaranteed within three months of the start of negotiations. Both amendments are expected to be overturned by MPs next week and peers have made clear they will not seek to delay the legislation after that.

The prime minister has promised that parliament will be allowed to vote on the final deal and the amendment called for such a vote to be binding. The government argued that the prospect of a parliamentary veto on the final Brexit deal would undermine the prime minister in the negotiations with other EU leaders.

Bad deal

George Bridges, a junior minister, told peers that the amendment would encourage Britain's EU partners to offer Britain a bad deal in the hope that parliament would not allow her to walk away from it.


John Kerr, a former diplomat who helped to draft article 50, insisted that Britain's decision to leave the EU could be revoked if the government changed its mind or found the exit terms unacceptable. Former deputy prime minister Michael Heseltine said that sovereignty in Britain lay in parliament and that the mandate to leave the EU could not last for all time.

“I must make clear that in accepting the mandate to negotiate our withdrawal from the European Union, I do not accept that the mandate runs for all time and in all circumstances,” he said.

Before debating the issue of a parliamentary vote on the Brexit deal, peers rejected by a majority of 205 an amendment calling for the final deal to be put to a referendum. Dick Newby, the Liberal Democrats' leader in the Lords, said the amendment was based on the principle that, because the people initiated the Brexit process, they should have the final say on the negotiated outcome.


Most peers disagreed, however, including many who oppose Brexit, and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, warned that a second referendum would exacerbate the divisions exposed by the first.

“It will add to our divisions, it will deepen the bitterness. It is not democratic. It is unwise,” he said.

Downing Street earlier rejected a suggestion from former Conservative leader William Hague that Ms May should call a snap general election to secure a bigger majority for legislation associated with Brexit. Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Lord Hague said that an enhanced parliamentary majority would strengthen the prime minister's hand in negotiations with the EU.

“Any deal is bound to be full of compromises which one group or another in parliament finds difficult to stomach,” he said.

“As British law needs to be amended countless times to take account of leaving the EU treaties, the government could face many close votes, concessions or defeats as it tries to implement Brexit. That prospect will embolden the EU negotiators, and makes an agreement that is good for the UK harder to achieve.”

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton is London Editor of The Irish Times