Theresa May’s Brexit plans suffered mutliple fresh defeats on Tuesday, as peers voted to try and force the UK to commit to retaining close ties to the EU single market after Brexit.
On Tuesday, the House of Lords – the unelected upper chamber which scrutinises legislation – voted on several more amendments to the EU Withdrawal Bill, the piece of legislation which will formalise Brexit.
One of those amendments instructs the government to begin negotiating future UK membership of the European Economic Area (EEA), the so-called “Norway option.” The government lost the vote by 245 to 218. 83 Labour peers rebelled against Jeremy Corbyn’s demand they abstain, joining forces with 17 Conservative rebel peers, 84 Lib Dems, and others.
Such an arrangement, if implemented, would be 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.
There is now likely to be uproar from Leave-voting MPs over the vote, who have already accused peers of trying to thwart Brexit.
The amendment will next 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.
The House of Lords also inflcted two other Brexit defeats on Theresa May’s government on Tuesday.
It voted against plans to insert a fixed Brexit day of 29 March 2019 in Brexit legislation by 311 votes to 233, and voted in favour of an amendment supporting British membership in EU agencies post-Brexit by 298 votes to 227.
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