Ministers are expected to confirm on Thursday that the government has been forced to delay bringing the EU withdrawal bill back to the House of Commons for a second time, as it seeks to persuade Tory rebels to drop their backing for hostile amendments.
MPs on both sides of the house had expected debate on the next stage of the key Brexit bill to begin next week but with Theresa May at risk of suffering a string of defeats at the hands of Conservative rebels, the government has set aside more time to prepare its response.
One senior Conservative sympathetic to the amendments said the government appeared to be delaying the bill while the whips tried to “bully” Tory rebels into withdrawing their names from the amendments as they sought to reduce the number of concessions they would have to make.
The Conservative source said the cabinet was split over how to deal with the hundreds of hostile amendments and how far to back down on key issues.
The shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, said the fresh delay called into question the prime minister’s ability to press ahead with Brexit.
“This is further proof that the government’s Brexit strategy is in paralysis. The negotiations are in deadlock and now a crucial piece of legislation is facing further delay,” he said.
“There is chaos at the heart of government. Theresa May cannot unite her cabinet or her party behind this deeply flawed bill. There are now serious questions about whether the prime minister can deliver Brexit.”
The parliamentary process is likely to expose divisions in the Conservative party and the fragility of the prime minister’s governing majority just as negotiations in Brussels reach a crucial stage.
Labour has tabled more than 20 amendments and said it will vote against the bill in its current form.
Pro-EU backbenchers convened by the all-party parliamentary group on European relations, chaired by Labour’s Chuka Umunna and the Conservative Anna Soubry, have cooperated to lay down scores of other amendments, more than a dozen of which have enough Conservative signatures to potentially threaten May’s majority.
Umunna said: “I am not at all surprised. It is a badly drafted bill and badly thought through. The number of amendments has given ministers a lot to think about, which shows parliament is taking back control and already doing its job of scrutiny well on this.”
Conservative MPs are thought more likely to back amendments laid down by Labour backbenchers than by Starmer and his frontbench colleagues, for fear of being accused of giving support to Jeremy Corbyn.
Concerns covered by the amendments include the scope of so-called Henry VIII powers, which Labour has warned amount to a significant power grab by ministers; protections for human rights; and the issue of whether parliament would be given a vote before Britain plunged out of the EU without a deal.
Anna Soubry, one of the Tory MPs with concerns about the bill, said: “If this is about the government either coming up with their own amendments that pretty much match amendments or ones that cite the problems they seek to address, then I’m not getting too concerned about the delay in the bill.
“My worry is whether or not the government is actually in that position yet where it is looking at things, working out, doing the numbers and realising it has got to have this bill amended.”
The withdrawal bill, which May announced as the “great repeal bill” at last year’s Conservative party conference, is a crucial piece of legislation laying the groundwork for Brexit by bringing EU legislation into UK law and repealing the European Communities Act.
Andrea Leadsom, the leader of the house, conceded last week that the government would need more time to sift through more than 300 amendments; but backbench rebels believe the longer she delays, the more time it gives them to organise their attack on a bill the former attorney general Dominic Grieve has called an “astonishing monstrosity” in its current form.
A spokesman for the Department for Exiting the European Union denied that the bill had been delayed, claiming no date had been set. It had been widely expected to return to the Commons immediately after parliament’s break for the party conferences.
The spokesman said: “The withdrawal bill is an essential piece of legislation in the national interest. It is completely false to suggest that there has been a delay to the bill as it has yet to be scheduled to enter committee stage. The process is straightforward: the leader of the house will announce the next week’s business at business questions tomorrow.”
Speaking to MPs on the cross-party procedure committee on Wednesday, the DexEU minister Steve Baker said the government would consider amendments, including the idea of a so-called “sifting committee” to sort through changes made under the Henry VII powers.
But he said the department could not introduce new layers of scrutiny if it would threaten the government’s ability to prepare for Brexit day in March 2019.
“The crux of the matter is time,” he said. “It is incumbent on us to think extremely carefully about the pros and cons of any amendments.” He said parliament had expressed a “strong view” about the idea of a sifting committee.
The Brexit secretary, David Davis, made clear during the second reading of the bill, when Conservative MPs were threatening to rebel against the government, that he was prepared to consider amendments to assuage backbenchers’ concerns and make the legislation work more effectively.
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