Theresa May blinks first in Brexit bill Commons clash with rebel MPs

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Theresa May today hinted at concessions as she faced a major Tory revolt over the Government’s Brexit “power grab”.

With three senior MPs warning of a growing rebellion, the Prime Minister promised in the Commons to meet them and to “listen very carefully”.

The dramatic moment came during a day of growing pressure from Conservatives who fear that the Government’s flagship Bill to quit the European Union will give untrammelled new powers. It began with ex-attorney general Dominic Grieve warning against “rule by decree” in a hard-hitting article in today’s Evening Standard. The QC and MP said the Withdrawal Bill would leave “our domestic constitution and liberties vandalised” unless amended by the Commons.

He was echoed by Nicky Morgan, Tory chairman of the cross-party Treasury Select Committee. She told the Standard: “When people voted to take back control, I believe they wanted control to come back to a sovereign parliament at Westminster, not to an all-powerful government in Whitehall.” And in the Commons this afternoon, former business minister Anna Soubry said there was concern the Bill represented an “unprecedented and unnecessary Government power-grab”.

Facing a clear threat of defeat, Mrs May defended her plans but offered talks during the Bill’s progress. “As the Bill goes through its scrutiny and the debate continues, we will of course listen carefully to that debate and I will be very happy to meet my Right Hon Friend to discuss this further,” she said.

The uprising is over so-called Henry VIII powers, named after a medieval statute that allowed the monarch to rule by proclamation. This refers to powers in the Bill for ministers to use secondary legislation, which does not need a new Act of Parliament, on an unprecedented scale when more than 1,000 pieces of European law are transferred en masse to the statute books. Mr Grieve, one of the most respected legal minds in Parliament, writes that the Bill is flawed and fails to give certainty about how some laws and rights affecting the public would be interpreted after Brexit. 

“Even more worryingly it seeks to confer powers on the Government to carry out Brexit in breach of our constitutional principles, in a manner that no sovereign Parliament should allow,” he writes. He warns that “vast areas of law” could be altered by the Government “without full parliamentary process”.

The legislation, dubbed the Repeal Bill by Brexit-backers, faces a cross-party revolt when it goes into the detailed line-by-line debate stage. The first clash will come on Monday in the vote at the end of the second reading debate, which starts tomorrow, after Labour said its MPs will vote against the entire Bill. Senior Tories are keeping their powder dry for the detailed committee stage.

Mr Grieve says the powers allow “for ministerial rule by decree on any matter that can be connected to a failure of the incorporation of EU law to operate effectively … the electorate did not vote to ‘take back control’ to see our domestic constitution and liberties vandalised”. 

The Government said: “The Government is clear that the correcting power will be time-limited, to apply before the UK leaves the EU and for a limited period afterwards. We are also clear that any significant changes to policy will be done via primary legislation.” 

Labour’s Brexit spokesman, Sir Keir Starmer, said: “Labour will work across the House to prevent Parliament being sidelined.”

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