The bill was expected to return to the floor of the House of Commons next week for the start of eight days of detailed scrutiny © AFP
Theresa May has been forced to delay the introduction of her flagship EU withdrawal bill in the face of a planned rebellion by pro-European Tory MPs who are working intensively across party lines to rewrite the legislation.
The bill had been expected to return to the floor of the House of Commons next week for the start of eight days of detailed scrutiny, but that timetable has slipped as the prime minister’s team try to head off multiple rebellions.
Andrea Leadsom, leader of the House of Commons, said on Thursday that “some 300 amendments and 54 new clauses have been proposed” by MPs who had “concerns about the bill”.
Mrs May is under pressure to grant MPs a vote on an act of parliament to endorse the final Brexit deal she secures, while MPs also want guarantees that devolved powers transferred from the EU are passed on to Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast.
Dominic Grieve, the former Tory attorney-general, is leading pressure for Mrs May to water down sweeping “Henry VIII powers” in the bill that would allow ministers to make big legislative changes regarding Brexit with minimal parliamentary scrutiny.
Ms Leadsom conceded that the government was trying to defuse the potential rebellions on at least a dozen key amendments before bringing the bill — which transfers EU legislation on to the British statute book — back to the Commons.
“That is taking a bit of time so that we give proper, thoughtful, well considered responses to them,” she said. “We will, of course, be bringing forward the committee of the whole House just as soon as we are able to do so.”
“The Tories’ repeal bill is simply not fit for purpose,” said the shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer. “It would give huge and unaccountable power to ministers and puts vital rights and protections at risk.”
Mr Starmer accepts that Labour will struggle to successfully amend the bill if amendments are put down in the name of Jeremy Corbyn, Labour leader, so he is working with pro-European MPs from all parties to achieve the same goal.
Tory, Labour, Scottish National party, Liberal Democrat and Green backbenchers have been working together to co-ordinate their amendments, which currently stretch to around 70 pages.
Individual parties have WhatsApp groups of soft Brexit and anti-Brexit MPs, while more than 200 MPs receive briefings from an all-party parliamentary group on EU relations, set up by Labour’s Chuka Umunna and the Conservatives’ Anna Soubry.
The pro-EU politicians are attempting to improve on largely unsuccessful efforts to amend the Article 50 notification bill — which authorised Theresa May to begin Brexit negotiations with Brussels — and to learn from the guerrilla tactics that Eurosceptic backbenchers deployed in the run-up to the EU referendum.
But there remains a degree of distrust between soft Brexit Tories and their Labour counterparts. Tories fear that opposition MPs want to use the bill to undermine Mrs May’s government, or to set the terms of Brexit.
Some Labour MPs, meanwhile, doubt whether Tory MPs will dare to rebel against the government, if it does not concede on key aspects of the bill.
MPs will have eight days to debate the amendments, in the committee stage of the bill. Mrs May has a working majority of 13 in the Commons, but can also count on the support of around seven pro-Brexit Labour MPs.
At the second reading, the bill passed by 326 to 290, with pro-EU Tories such as Mr Grieve backing the government.
Mr Grieve has tabled an amendment that would require the final deal with the EU to be approved by a statute. The government has to date promised a vote, which could be a simple yes-or-no motion.
Mr Grieve’s other proposed amendments include greater scrutiny of ministerial actions, and the incorporation of the EU charter of fundamental rights and the EU’s general legal principles into domestic law after Brexit.