Theresa May will face a testing week as parliament returns on Tuesday, with Conservative whips braced for battles with newly emboldened party rebels over the repeal bill.
Both May and the Brexit secretary, David Davis, warned MPs on Sunday they should not obstruct the bill’s passage via amendments or they will risk a victory for Labour’s leader, Jeremy Corbyn; remarks that drew ire from some Conservatives who insisted they had legitimate concerns about the extent of the bill’s powers.
The European Union (withdrawal) bill, which will have its second reading on Thursday, is intended to transpose EU legislation into British law from the day the UK leaves the EU, but it is set to involve extensive use of so-called “Henry VIII powers” – laws that allow ministers to change primary legislation using secondary legislation without parliamentary scrutiny.
Critics said the bill will give government ministers sweeping powers to change key areas of the law without parliamentary scrutiny, although Davis has insisted the powers will only be used for technical purposes.
The former constitution minister, John Penrose, said there was a delicate balance to be struck between the flexibility required to cope with Brexit and the fundamental role of parliament in scrutinising the changes.
The Conservative MP said he hoped ministers would hear legitimate concerns from MPs about an overreach of powers. “The current draft of the repeal bill gives lots of power to ministers so we can deliver Brexit – which is essential – but it cuts parliament’s role right down,” he said.
“Ministers have already said they don’t want this bill to be a power grab, so I’m sure they will listen and bring forward their own changes as the bill goes through parliament.”
Other Conservative MPs reacted angrily to demands from No 10 that they should not seek to table amendments to the repeal bill when it reaches committee stage in October. Should any pro-remain Tories table amendments that call for the option for the UK to remain in the single market or customs union, they are likely to attract cross-party support from Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs.
On Sunday, Lib Dem Brexit spokesman Tom Brake said he had written to 21 Conservative Eurosceptics who signed a joint letter in January 2016 before the Brexit referendum calling for parliamentary sovereignty to be put at the heart of David Cameron’s renegotiations, asking them to reconsider their position on the repeal bill, given its implications.
The letter, which is going to some of the most hardline Brexiters, including Bernard Jenkin, John Baron and Peter Bone, reads: “To deny the importance of parliamentary sovereignty in relation to this bill would be hypocritical and inconsistent with your previous stance.”
Davis, who is due to give a statement to the house when it returns on Tuesday, said all MPs had an interest in the bill succeeding. “Everything in terms of significant change will be done in separate primary legislation, from immigration bills to customs bills. Anybody, remainer or leaver, should support this bill,” he said.
“This bill is there in order to enable continuity, if you want a soft Brexit ... this is the bill you should be supporting. It takes the laws there now and puts them in place the day after we leave. It’s not a question of national politics.”
The department of the international trade secretary, Liam Fox, was dealt a separate blow on Sunday by the exit of Lord Price, the former Waitrose boss, as international trade minister, after reports he had been at odds with the government on Brexit policy.
MP Greg Hands, who took on the peer’s role as trade minister, twice refused to confirm whether Price had full confidence in the strategy when asked by BBC Radio 5 Live’s Pienaar’s Politics programme. Price said he had resigned in order to pursue “business and writing interests”.
Hands said the peer’s position was “always going to be a time limited period. It was very good of him to join us.”
Asked if Price might have had issues with the government’s approach, Hands sidestepped the question. “Lord Price has been a key part of the whole strategy,” he said.
Lord Adonis, the former Labour minister and government infrastructure adviser, said it was clear Price had found it “impossible to justify or explain the government position” from the despatch box in the House of Lords. In a series of scathing tweets, Adonis said Price was “a serious guy – obviously he didn’t agree with Brexit policy – now there is no one to defend it in the [House of] Lords who is half competent.”
Over the weekend, cabinet and ministerial colleagues gave cautious – but caveated – support for the prime minister’s insistence last week that she would serve a full term in No 10 and planned to fight the next election. Davis called May a “great prime minister” when asked by the BBC’s Andrew Marr but stopped short of giving her an endorsement to lead the party into the next election.
Hands also sounded a more cautious note, telling Radio 5 Live “five years is a long time in politics”.
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