Theresa May risks Brexit defeat as Tory and Labour rebel peers join forces on the single market

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  • The House of Lords could inflict another humiliating defeat on Theresa May’s Brexit plans on Tuesday, as senior EU figures reportedly fear a looming crisis because of the prime minister’s inability to placate her own party.
  • The vote could force May to negotiate for a soft Brexit, pushing for the so-called “Norway option” which kept Britain within the Single Market.
  • Labour peers are expected to be whipped to support the government, but peers on both sides are expected to join crossbenchers in backing the amendment.
  • Senior EU figures are reportedly worried she’s heading for a crisis due to her inability to act amid pressure from pro-Remain Tories and hardline Brexiteers.

LONDON – Theresa May’s Brexit plans could suffer another defeat on Tuesday, as peers attempt to force the UK to commit to retaining close ties to the EU single market after Brexit.

On Tuesday afternoon the House of Lords – the unelected upper chamber which scrutinises legislation – will vote on several more amendments to the EU Withdrawal Bill, the piece of legislation which will formalise Brexit. One of those amendments would instruct the government to begin negotiating future UK membership of the European Economic Area (EEA), the so-called “Norway option.”

Such an arrangement would represent the “softest” possible Brexit, as it would see Britain retain comprehensive access to the Single Market, as well as keeping freedom of movement in place. The UK would not automatically be part of the common agricultural policy or common fisheries policy as an EEA member.

Staying in the single market is backed by most Labour voters and growing numbers of Labour MPs. However the Labour party’s official position is to support the UK’s membership of a customs union with the EU but to oppose single market or EEA membership.

Jeremy Corbyn has accordingly whipped peers to abstain from this afternoon’s vote. But an Observer report on Saturday suggested that up to 40 peers are ready to defy the whip and vote in favour of the amendment. Labour peers have previously backed the government on similar amendments, citing voter concern about immigration.

Rebel Labour peers are reportedly furious that they were whipped to abstain, and say the majority of party members back a soft Brexit including single market membership, and believe the measure would stand a good chance of being passed in the Commons if it were voted through in the Lords.

Lord Waheed Alli, who tabled the amendment, said the Labour leadership was “paralysed by indecision.”

“This is complete cowardice,” he said.

“There is no point in being in politics to abstain. If you stand in the middle of the road, someone is going to knock you over.”

What could happen next?

If the amendment does pass, there would be uproar from Leave-voting MPs who have already accused peers of trying to thwart Brexit.

The amendment would pass to the House of Commons, where MPs could either accept or reject the proposal. Calls for a softer Brexit are growing louder from moderate MPs in both parties, including former Tory minister Justine Greening. That means a successful vote is possible, although unlikely.

The vote comes as May struggles to navigate a course in Brexit negotiations which placates her own party, and particularly members of her own cabinet. Senior EU figures are reportedly worried she’s heading for a crisis due to her inability to act amid pressure from pro-Remain Tories and hardline Brexiteers.

One official told RTE News that hardline elements in the party appear ready to abandon the UK’s commitment to avoid a hard border in Ireland, while May’s own preferred solution for the problem – a so-called “customs partnership” – has been rejected by senior Cabinet Brexiteers.

Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s warning on Tuesday that the plan was “crazy” represented a serious threat to the prime minister’s authority, although talk of a leadership challenge has not been forthcoming so far.

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