Senior Tories warn May over Brexit bill after MPs vote for second reading

Keir Starmer - Cambridge

Conservative MPs have warned Theresa May that their support for her government’s Brexit legislation is not unconditional, as they demanded significant changes to the EU withdrawal bill within minutes of backing it.

Parliament’s post-midnight vote resulted in the prime minister facing no rebellion from within her party, as the government secured a victory of 326 to 290.

The result handed May an effective “Brexit majority” of 36 after seven Labour MPs – Ronnie Campbell, Frank Field, Kate Hoey, Kelvin Hopkins, John Mann, Dennis Skinner and Graham Stringer – defied their own party whip to support the government, arguing that the referendum demanded the legislation be passed.

The prime minister called it a “historic decision to back the will of the British people” and said the vote would give clarity and certainty through the Brexit process.

“Although there is more to do, this decision means we can move on with negotiations with solid foundations and we continue to encourage MPs from all parts of the UK to work together in support of this vital piece of legislation,” she said.

However, senior Tory backbenchers were among those racing to lay down critical amendments immediately after the vote, as a big queue formed in which MPs jostled to table their suggestions first.

Significantly, the former attorney general Dominic Grieve teamed up with his Tory colleague John Penrose, to warn against a power grab by ministers through so-called Henry VIII powers.

Their calls for change came alongside a series of amendments from MPs from across the House of Commons, including Brexit-supporting Labour politicians and the opposition frontbenches.

The shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, who led a vote against the bill because he argued it was so weak, called it a “deeply disappointing result”.

He said: “This bill is an affront to parliamentary democracy and a naked power grab by government ministers. It leaves rights unprotected, it silences parliament on key decisions and undermines the devolution settlement.”

Starmer argued that Labour would amend and remove the worst aspects of the bill but called the flaws “so fundamental” that it was hard to see it ever made “fit for purpose”.

The Liberal Democrat Brexit spokesman Tom Brake called it “a dark day for the mother of parliaments”.

While Penrose co-signed three amendments with Grieve because of his previous role as constitutional minister, he is also on the committee of the European Research Group (ERG) of Tory backbenchers that includes dozens of the party’s most ardent Brexiters.

“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.

“If Brexit is supposed to take back control of our laws, it’s pretty hard to argue that the small number of genuinely important and substantive changes should simply be waved through parliament without thorough debate.”

In an article for the Guardian’s website to be published on Tuesday, Penrose argues that he and Grieve want two key changes to the bill. First they are calling for a joint committee of the Lords and Commons to scrutinise the government’s planned use of the new powers, which could force parliamentary debates in the few cases where it was thought necessary.

They also want to limit the “wriggle room which ministers are given” during the process.

Although other ERG members are supporting May’s legislation, some have privately expressed support for Penrose’s position, with one senior figure telling the Guardian they had not campaigned for Brexit in order for it to turn into a “power grab”.

They said many Brexiters would “sympathise” with their colleague’s calls, raising the prospect of a series of difficult parliamentary votes for May in the coming months.

Grieve also planned to lay down other amendments including calling for a further bill to be required after MPs know what the Brexit deal looks like before this legislation can actually be enacted. He also criticised the removal of safeguards for people or businesses adversely affected by the application of EU law.

“This bill is necessary if we are to leave the EU without chaos, and so irrespective of ones views on leaving the EU it is a necessity but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be subject to proper scrutiny nor does it justify the government taking powers which are excessive,” he told the Guardian. “I shall be doing my best to ensure the bill is functional.”

The justice secretary, David Lidington, argued that there were safeguards within the bill on Henry VIII powers. He also made a concession to Tory backbenchers over the bill’s timetable – promising to extend the eight days given to debate if needed.

But Grieve and other Conservative MPs, such as Anna Soubry and Nicky Morgan, could win support from colleagues, with sources suggesting the government was bound to make some concessions.

The Conservative MP Robert Jenrick argued in parliament that there were concerns around the Henry VIII powers. He told colleagues that while at least 50% of the statutory instruments would make “immaterial technical changes” that would not concern MPs, there had to be a mechanism by which to “sift based on materiality”.

Meanwhile, the Brexiter Edward Leigh argued for the government to take a magnanimous approach on Brexit, both inside parliament and towards European allies and to the demands of Scottish politicians.

He said that Brexit supporters had long argued for parliamentary sovereignty called on May to be generous with amendments.

He even suggested the government should offer the EU to pay towards financial commitments up to 2021 – even if there were not a legal necessity.

Ken Clarke abstained on the second-reading vote, and the Conservative MP backed the opposition on the subsequent programme motion to timetable the bill’s progress.

A number of backbenchers laid amendments, including Labour’s Chris Leslie – who said his discussions with Tory MPs made clear there was “an appetite to enshrine in the bill a requirement for proper parliamentary approval of the final withdrawal agreement”.

Among the Labour MPs not voting with the party line was Caroline Flint, a former Europe minister in the strongly pro-leave Don Valley constituency, who abstained on the vote.

She said she accepted the bill’s scope of powers would need attention but said it was not Labour’s job to kill it.

However, speaking afterwards, Flint called on the government to be open to sensible amendments. “The Henry VIII powers, protecting rights and redress; guaranteeing parliamentary oversight – these issues can all be resolved. The government has to avoid a bunker mentality and seek cross-party agreement. I see no other viable way forward.”

Others including Frank Field made similar arguments – and also planned to try to amend the legislation.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Anushka Asthana Political editor, for The Guardian on Tuesday 12th September 2017 01.07 Europe/London

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010