Theresa May has suffered her 13th Brexit defeat in the House of Lords as peers voted to delete the formal UK/EU divorce date from the Government’s flagship withdrawal legislation.
The Government had defined the point of Brexit as 11pm on March 29, 2019 in its European Union (Withdrawal) Bill.
But peers voted 311 to 233, a majority of 78, to remove the date in a move likely to spark fears among Brexiteers of a bid to delay or even thwart the UK’s withdrawal from the bloc.
The Government will now have to decide whether to fight to reinsert the Brexit date on the face of the Bill when it returns to the House of Commons for further debate.
Deleting the Brexit date from the Bill represented a punctuation mark on the Bill’s difficult passage through the Lords which has seen peers inflict a dozen embarrassing defeats on the Government .
The original decision by the Prime Minister to add the Brexit date to the Bill during its initial journey through the Commons prompted a fierce row with Remain-backing MPs.
They argued that setting a date would rob ministers of the flexibility they could need if negotiations with Brussels stall and they run out of time.
Peers employed a similar argument, likening the formal Brexit date to a “straitjacket”.
But Lord Callanan, a Brexit minister, insisted he saw “no reason” to delete the date.
“I would reiterate that exit day within the Bill does not affect our departure from the EU, which is a matter of international law under the Article 50 process,” he said.
“What it does effect, however, is whether we leave the EU in a smooth and orderly fashion.”
But the Duke of Wellington, a Tory peer who lead the cross-party move to delete the exit date, said he was trying to help the Government in its negotiations and was not trying to “thwart the process”.
The Duke said the aim was to revert to the original wording of the Bill as he argued the Government’s decision to amend it in the Commons by adding the date had been unnecessary.
He said: “We know beyond any doubt that for the purposes of this Bill we leave the EU on March 29, 2019. But this date should not be defined and specified … in case it becomes necessary and in the national interest to agree an extension as provided in Article 50.”
He added: “We should give ministers a bit more flexibility to secure and obtain ratification of the best possible deal, which will do the least damage to the economy and the national interest.”
Backing the amendment, Labour’s Baroness Hayter told peers removing the exit date would “make the task easier for negotiators”.
She said: “If this amendment is successful, it will remove the straitjacket that the Government are in, I have to say not at the behest of negotiators but at the behest of certain ardent Brexiteers.”
Peers also defeated the Government over a bid to allow Britain’s continued participation in EU agencies after Brexit.
The cross-party amendment to the Bill was approved by 298 votes to 227, a majority 71.
It would also ensure future EU laws can be replicated on the UK statute book.