Lords Defeat May in Brexit Bill Vote on Irish Border Provisions

(Bloomberg) -- U.K. peers secured yet another defeat of Prime Minister Theresa May’s government over a key piece of Brexit legislation, voting through an amendment that seeks to ensure no hard border in Northern Ireland after Britain’s departure from the European Union.

The House of Lords voted 309 to 242 in favor of a change to the government’s European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, designed to protect the Irish peace process. The provision would bar the government from introducing checks and putting up any form of physical infrastructure on the border with Ireland unless prior agreement is reached with the Irish government.

Some Tory lawmakers “are very keen for the over the cliff, onto the rocks Brexit,” former Conservative Party Chairman Chris Patten, one of the sponsors of the amendment, told peers on Wednesday. The amendment is needed because the government is in danger of “blundering into the politics of Northern Ireland with a policy that is sometimes clueless, and sometimes delinquent, with a can of petrol and a box of matches in the other hand.”

Pressure is building on May over her Brexit bill, which returns to the House of Commons after completing its passage through the Lords next week. Wednesday’s was the 10th time that peers have voted against her, including over the customs union, human rights, ministerial powers, and environmental protection. While the elected, lower chamber can overturn changes made by the unelected upper house, it’s far from certain it will do so. May lacks a majority there and depends on votes from Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party.

The premier’s vulnerability was underlined in December when 12 Conservative rebels forced her into granting Parliament a meaningful vote on her final Brexit deal -- also the subject of one of her defeats in the Lords on the bill.

Lords Defeat May in Brexit Bill Vote on Irish Border Provisions

But the prime minister has vowed to strip out changes made by the Lords to the bill. Her spokesman, James Slack, told reporters on Tuesday that ministers would be “robust” when the legislation returns to the Commons.

“The Cabinet expressed strong disappointment” over the Lords votes, he said following the weekly meeting of May’s top ministers. “They risk tying the government’s hands behind its back in negotiations.”

While May herself has pledged there will be no new border infrastructure in Northern Ireland after Brexit, her Cabinet is still grappling with how to achieve this while still exiting the EU’s customs union. European officials also want to avoid a hard border, but say Britain could become a conduit for smuggling into the bloc without a common external tariff on imports.

Following the pattern of previous successful amendments, Wednesday’s was sponsored by peers across the political spectrum: Patten of the ruling Conservatives, Paul Murphy of Labour, Onora O’Neill, an independent, and Alison Suttie of the Liberal Democrats.

The Lords will hold one final debate on May’s Brexit bill on May 8. The government faces another defeat then on an amendment removing from the legislation the government’s fixed Brexit day of March 29, 2019, according to Labour’s Brexit spokeswoman in the upper chamber, Dianne Hayter, who has successfully predicted all of the government’s losses to date.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.