Theresa May is facing the threat of Parliamentary defeat over Brexit after Labour vowed to stop her from railroading a new EU ‘repeal’ bill through the Commons.
The prospect of a major constitutional showdown loomed as it emerged that the flagship European Union (Withdrawal Bill) will give ministers sweeping powers over the shape of the UK’s exit.
A new raft of so-called ‘Henry VIII powers’ will be handed to May and Brexit Secretary David Davis, allowing them to avoid Parliamentary scrutiny of up to 1,000 different regulations.
The medieval powers, which give the Government the right to change the law at the stroke of a pen, are set to spark intense opposition from both MPs and peers opposed to an ‘extreme Brexit’.
Davis will be allowed to set up brand new quangos and regulators to replace European-wide ones.
The new repeal bill also removes the UK from the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights, a move that will be bitterly fought by Labour and other parties which see that as an attack on citizens’ freedoms.
With the government’s working majority standing at just 13 – even with the backing of the DUP - Labour need to win over only seven Tory rebels to inflict defeat.
But a No.10 spokeswoman defended the new bill and suggested that any attempt to derail it would mean “there will be no laws” in the UK after 2019.
As Jeremy Corbyn met EU negotiators in Brussels, the Lib Dems have also warned they will fight like “hell” to block the bill.
In a sign that ministers are worried about defeat, the bill will not be put to a vote until the autumn at the earliest.
Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer told HuffPost UK: “The Repeal Bill gives sweeping powers to Ministers but it lacks effective oversight.
“The powers are far more wide-ranging than simply the ability to ‘correct’ technical details in the legislation, and could lead to major policy changes being carried out late in the negotiations and with a low level of scrutiny.
“Labour believe this is undemocratic, unaccountable and unacceptable.”
Starmer added that he and Corbyn were “putting the Prime Minister on notice” that unless the Bill was significantly improved Labour would vote it down.
The House of Lords, which has a clear anti-Tory majority of Labour, Lib Dem and crossbench peers, has already given notice it will fight any moves by ministers to avoid scrutiny.
So-called Henry VIII powers, gave the monarch the right in 1539 to make law by ‘proclamation’, enable primary legislation to be changed or repealed without Parliament having a full say.
Labour MP Wes Streeting, a leading supporter of the Open Britain lobby group, said: “The Government may have given themselves Henry VIII powers, but it would take someone with the skill and ruthlessness of Thomas Cromwell to get this mess of a Bill through Parliament.
“The British people did not vote to take away powers from their elected representatives in our sovereign Parliament to give back control to Ministers in Whitehall. Yet the ‘Repeal Bill’ grants the Government extraordinarily broad powers to make big changes to our laws, including after we have left the EU, at the stroke of a ministerial pen. This is undemocratic, unaccountable, and simply wrong.”
The new bill will repeal the European Communities Act 1972, which took Britain into the EU and remove the supremacy of Brussels law.
The EU (Withdrawal) Bill includes a key section granting ministers their new powers to bypass Parliament for up to two years even after Brexit takes place on March 31, 2019.
HuffPost UK has been told that the two-year limit was aimed at allowing “an orderly flow” of legislation over coming years, as Parliament risks getting clogged up with thousands of Statutory Instruments needed to transfer EU law into British law.
The publication of the bill came as the head of the National Audit Office public spending watchdog, Sir Amyas Morse, warned that the government was so ill-prepared for Brexit, it could fall apart “like a chocolate orange”.
A key section of the new bill states: “The charter of fundamental rights is not part of domestic law on or after exit day.”
Davis insisted that the new repeal bill would provide “maximum certainty, continuity and control”, calling it “one of the most significant pieces of legislation that has ever passed through parliament and a major milestone in the process of our withdrawal from the European Union”.
Lib Dem leader Tim Farron said: “The government are facing a parliamentary version of guerrilla warfare that resembles the days of the Maastricht Treaty.
“But this debate is not just a quagmire for the government, it is also a political nightmare that could end Theresa May’s premiership.”