Theresa May’s Brexit strategy has been dealt a fresh blow as peers ganged up to defeat the Government over its plans for Britain’s post-EU customs ties.
The House of Lords voted 207-141 in favour of a cross-party bid calling on the Government to take all steps to join a new customs union with the EU after Brexit.
The embarrassing defeat on the Trade Bill means the Government will now have to convince the House of Commons to overturn the peers’ decision – and raises the prospect that MPs could team up to back the proposal and inflict another humiliating defeat.
It came as talks with the EU on securing changes to the controversial Northern Ireland backstop plan shuddered to a halt with little sign of a breakthrough.
Labour’s Shadow International Trade Minister Lord Stevenson said: “The success of this cross-party Lords motion gives both the Government and the House of Commons a chance to step back from the disaster of a no deal, and to deliver an outcome which would satisfy the clear majority of people in the UK.
“Ministers must now drop their red lines on Brexit and embark on a fresh approach to the negotiations with the EU – based around a new Customs Union that protects jobs, secures opportunities for our industries, and removes the need for a hard border in Ireland.”
But Conservative frontbencher Lord Bates said the Commons had already rejected similar proposals, and warned the House of Lords: “It doesn’t need a chance to think again.”
‘LEGAL SOLUTION TO A POLITICAL PROBLEM’
The Telegraph meanwhile reports that ministers now believe Mrs May is making plans for a third meaningful vote on her Brexit deal in anticipation of a another hefty defeat in the second attempt at passing her agreement next week.
The Prime Minister is preparing to give a “major speech” this Friday to try and convince MPs to back her agreement, which was defeated by an historic majority in January.
In a fresh bid to push through the impasse, the Government said it would draft in business and customs experts to try and come up with an alternative to the Irish backstop, which Brexiteers fear could leave the UK indefinitely tied to EU customs and single market rules.
The Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU) said three new advisory groups would be set up, with one bringing in technical experts in trade and customs to look at “cutting-edge” solutions to avoid friction at the border, and the others bringing in business and trade union representatives as well as MPs.
A DExEU spokesperson said: “There is clear support for finding alternative arrangements to ensure there is no hard border on the island of Ireland.
“In adding business and technical expertise on top of civil service resource, we will ensure we are strengthening the government’s efforts to identify the necessary facilitations and technologies.”
The announcement came as a diplomatic briefing note obtained by BuzzFeed News revealed how this week’s meetings between Attorney General Geoffrey Cox, Brexit Secretary Steve Barclay and the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier ended in deadlock.
In a meeting described as “negative” by the EU side, Mr Cox was accused of trying to find a “legal solution to a political problem”, while Mr Barnier rejected a UK proposal for a new “mini backstop” covering only border infrastructure.