The House of Lords, the upper house of parliament, has inflicted two serious defeats on Theresa May's government at it attempts to get its EU withdrawal bill passed into law. More defeats are likely.
The House of Lords voted 348 to 225 on Wednesday afternoon on an amendment to the EU Withdrawal Bill. It obliges ministers to explain by the end of October the steps they have taken to negotiate the UK's continued participation in a customs union with the European Union.
In a second vote later in the day, the government lost by 97 votes on an amendment to the law which seeks to limit ministers' powers after Brexit. The amendment is aimed at stopping the government from weakening existing EU rights on issues ranging from employment to health and safety when they are transferred to UK law.
The amendment on the customs union would require the government, headed by Prime Minister Theresa May, to give parliament a statement outlining the steps taken in talks with Brussels to negotiate "an arrangement which enables the UK to continue participating in a customs union with the European Union."
A total of 24 Conservative peers voted against the government and for the amendment on Wednesday. They included key party figures such as former European commissioner and Hong Kong governor Chris Patten; former party chairman Lord Deben, and former deputy prime minister Lord Heseltine.
Lord Patten, who was once chairman of the Conservative Party, said it was not the time to put party loyalty ahead of the national interest and described government policy as "absurd." He said: "I don't think we will do better than we are doing within the Customs Union."
"If in the end we do leave, it should be in a way that limits the damage to the country's well-being ... and that's why I believe it makes sense for the government to be asked to explore customs unions," said Lord (John) Kerr who backed the Remain in the EU campaign in the 2016 referendum.
The government's Brexit department admitted to being "disappointed" at the vote, but in a statement said it did not "commit the UK to remaining in a customs union with the EU." The Conservative government wants to leave the EU so it can forge its own free trade deals.
Retained EU law
The second vote on Wednesday followed another debate on an amendment; this time on Retained EU law. It proposes ministers should not be allowed to amend retained EU law in certain areas, including employment, equality, health and safety, consumer standards and environmental protection. The government had hoped to retain the freedom to alter any legislation it saw fit.
Fourteen Conservative peers voted for the amendment, against the government, as it went through 314 to 217.
Both chambers have to agree on the final wording of the EU Withdrawal Bill before it can become law. A final vote is expected in October or November.
jm/msh (Reuters, AFP)