Hardline Tory Eurosceptics in the House of Lords are planning to derail cross-party moves to avoid a no-deal Brexit.
Senior government sources and MPs have told HuffPost UK that a clutch of die-hard Brexiteer peers is ready to ‘talk out’ or ‘filibuster’ a radical new bill that seeks to solve the Parliamentary deadlock.
The bill, proposed by Labour’s Yvette Cooper, is set to win official backing from Jeremy Corbyn and Tory Remainers as a key weapon in the battle against the UK crashing out of the EU without a deal in March.
If Cooper’s amendment succeeds next week, it will create a day in February when the Commons will fast-track the bill and effectively force Theresa May to delay Brexit by three months or more.
But her critics have spotted that the private member’s bill could be blocked in the House of Lords by just a handful of Tory Brexiteers, because the second chamber has no means of ending debate and a bill could be ‘talked out’.
In the House of Commons a ‘guillotine’ motion is often used to end debate, but tradition dictates that peers are self-governing and can speak for as long as they like.
“People in the Lords may be happy to talk about it for several weeks,” one government insider said.
“It’s inevitable. With these old, long established institutions, you can try to break them but they will break you back,” one senior Conservative added. “They will find a way.”
When the idea of a Lords filibuster was put to Tory deputy chairman James Cleverly, he told HuffPost UK’s Commons People podcast: “I don’t want to see things filibustered. All kinds of things could happen...when you try overnight to smash up centuries of evolved practice.
“It’s like making a more complicated tax regime, for example. Clever people take your complicated tax regime and find loopholes. This will have loopholes, I’m quite sure Yvette Cooper hasn’t thought of them all. Other people may well do.”
Cleverly added that the Cooper move was a form of “constitutional vandalism” that would set a precedent for all future governments, including Labour ones.
He also seized on rumours that Labour peer Andrew Adonis was set to present Cooper’s bill on her behalf, warning that as a devout ‘Remainer’, it would be clear the legislation’s intention was not to delay Brexit but to stop it.
One Labour source said that Lord Adonis was not going to present the bill in the Lords.
And Boles himself ruled out the idea on Thursday.
Labour’s leader in the Lords Baroness Smith warned Tory peers that any attempts to filibuster would actually undermine the principle that MPs - rather than unelected peers - have the upper hand in parliament.
“Given the primacy of the Commons, it would be extraordinary if unelected peers sought to derail this Bill,” she told HuffPost UK.
“If MPs pass the legislation, my sense is that the House of Lords would welcome an opportunity to help resolve the crisis created by Theresa May and the mess she has made of her Brexit negotiations.
“Recognising the primacy of the elected House, peers will be keen to give the legislation proper scrutiny in a timely manner. Any attempt to filibuster will be given short shrift.”
The Commons is due on Tuesday to vote on a series of amendments to the Prime Minister’s recent statement on her Brexit plans.
Cooper’s proposal is seen even by No.10 as the one with the greatest chance of success and privately insiders are braced for defeat.
However, they insist that the bill is highly dangerous in constitutional terms as it tears up the parliamentary convention that a sitting government should be able to control its timetable in the Commons.
Cooper’s plan would effectively instruct the PM to seek an extension to the two-year Article 50 process that governs the UK’s exit from the EU.
There are other problems with the Cooper bill that worry fellow MPs seeking to force May to change tack.
One senior Tory backbencher said that Cooper’s proposal would need the House of Lords to change its own standing orders to accommodate it. Private member’s bills are only considered one day a month in the Lords.
“Yvette’s is designed as a single, small bullet to hit the target,” the MP said.