30/04/2018 16:59 BST | Updated 01/05/2018 09:19 BST

May Suffers Huge Brexit Defeat As Lords Backs ‘Meaningful Vote’ On EU Deal

Eurosceptic Tory peer accused rebels of being ‘Fifth Columnists’

Theresa May has suffered her most damaging Brexit defeat so far after the House of Lords voted to give Parliament a say over the terms of any future EU deal.

Peers voted by 335 to 244 for a cross-party amendment to the EU (Withdrawal) Bill to ensure MPs get a ‘meaningful vote’ on the outcome of the Prime Minister’s talks with Brussels.

The hefty majority of 91 was powered by 19 Tory rebels - including Michael Heseltine, David Willetts and former Chief Whip James Arbuthnot - and 68 independent crossbenchers.

The amendment, tabled by former Tory Cabinet minister Lord Hailsham, allows Parliament to decide what course of action the Government should take in the event of a rejection of a draft withdrawal agreement or if no deal was agreed.

Backed by former diplomat Lord Hannay and Labour and the Liberal Democrats, the move is aimed at preventing May from presenting MPs with a ‘take it or leave it’ Brexit deal.

The amendment states that: “Her Majesty’s Government may implement a withdrawal agreement only if Parliament has approved the withdrawal agreement and any transitional measures agreed within or alongside it by an Act of Parliament”.

A powerful alliance of heavyweight names supported the move, which provides an even tougher lock on the PM’s powers than Dominic Grieve’s amendment passed in the Commons last year.

But there were unusually heated scenes in the Upper Chamber as a Lib Dem peer compared Theresa May to Adolf Hitler, and a Brexiteer Tory attacked the Remain camp as ‘fifth column’ traitors.

It will now go before the Commons next month, setting up a major Parliamentary showdown for May.

House of Lords
Lord Lamont, Lord Howard and Lord Hailsham

Viscount Hailsham warned that without his amendment Parliament’s view will be of “remarkably little significance”, adding the Government had been behaving like “an elected dictatorship” over the whole issue of the shape of the eventual deal. 

During an unusually fractious debate in the Lords, several Brexiteers - including former Tory leader Michael Howard and former Chancellor Lord Lamont - accused peers of trying to overturn the result of the 2016 EU referendum, when 17 million people voted to leave the bloc.

At one point hereditary Tory peer Lord Fairfax of Cameron even accused the proponents of the amendment of being ‘a fifth column for Brussels’, a reference to traitors who collaborated with the Nazis during the Second World War.

“This is a wrecking amendment designed to delay, frustrate and ultimately block Brexit,” he said, to protests.

“For all the protestations of Lord Hailsham and others…Those proposing and supporting it are playing the role of a fifth column for Monsieur Barnier and the EU negotiators.

“I’m sure they are very grateful they are doing is job for him...acting as a Fifth Column for Brussels by undermining the Government from the inside.”

House of Lords
Tory hereditary peer Lord Fairfax

Lord Fairfax, who also attacked the Lords as “a cosy cabal of Remain”, said that the amendment would tie the hands of ministers.

Former minister Baroness Altmann hit back: “This is not about frustrating Brexit, overturning the referendum. We are asking the other place [the Commons] to consider whether the vote being offered is indeed meaningful.”

Earlier, Liberal Democrat peer Lord Roberts of Llandudno said May’s Brexit bill reminded him of something more sinister.

“My mind went back to Berlin in March 1933, when the Enabling Bill was passed in the Reichstag. That Enabling Bill transferred democratic rights of the parliament into the hands of one man, that was the Chancellor. His name was Adolf Hitler.

’Perhaps I’m seeing threats that do not exist, but they are there, they are possible. Who’d have said before the 1930s that Germany, this cultured country, would involve itself in such a terrible war.”

PA Archive/PA Images
Brexit Secretary David Davis

Brexit minister Lord Callanan confirmed during Monday’s debate the take-it-or-leave-it basis on which the Government will present its final Brexit terms to Parliament.

“If Parliament rejects the agreement, there is nothing further for us to vote on,” he said.

Such a stance was the main motivation for peers insisting that there should be a legal means to ensure MPs could draft their own suggestions to get May back to the negotiating table in Brussels.

Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer said: “This is a hugely significant moment in the fight to ensure Parliament has a proper role in the Brexit negotiations and that we avoid a no deal situation.”

But Callanan said after the vote: “We are disappointed that the House of Lords has voted for this amendment in spite of the assurances we have provided.

“What this amendment would do is weaken the UK’s hand in our negotiations with the EU by giving Parliament unprecedented powers to instruct the Government to do anything with regard to the negotiations – including trying to keep the UK in the EU indefinitely.”

In a separate move, Labour frontbencher Lord Hunt of Kingsheath is facing a reprimand by the whips after voting for a Lib Dem amendment on a fresh referendum on Brexit.

Shadow Health minister Hunt sided with 51 Labour backbenchers to support the idea, which is not Labour party policy. He will be ‘called in’ for a ‘discussion’ with the Labour Lords leader Baroness Smith and chief Whip, HuffPost UK was told.

The Government lost two other key votes on the EU Withdrawal Bill on Monday in the Lords, including one requiring ministers to seek approval for ‘Phase 2’ of the Brexit talks and another on rights of refugees.

The refugee amendment was tabled by Lord Dubs, who called for post-Brexit plans to maintain current rights and regularly update Parliament on refugee programmes.