Embarrassment for Theresa May as peers vote to remove Brexit date from flagship bill

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Peers inflicted yet another defeat on the Government as they voted to remove the Brexit date from the EU Withdrawal Bill.

They voted 311 to 233 in favour of a cross-party amendment arguing that 29 March, 2019 should not be on the face of the legislation as it risked tying the hands of the UK’s negotiators.

It is the 12th defeat the Government has suffered during the flagship bill’s Third Reading in the House of Lords, and is particularly embarrassing for the Prime Minister.

In November last year, she announced that the Brexit date would be in the bill, and said: “Let no-one doubt our determination or question our resolve, Brexit is happening. It will be there in black and white on the front page of this historic piece of legislation.”

Within weeks, however, she was forced into a partial climbdown in the face of a potential Commons defeat.

The Government accepted an amendment by Tory MP Oliver Letwin which kept the date on the face of the bill, but gave parliament the power to extend the deadline if necessary.

But in the Lords, Conservative peer the Duke of Wellington said it should be removed altogether.

He said: “What is the point of having the date on the face of this bill when it may have to be changed in circumstances which we cannot foresee?”

But Brexit minister Lord Callanan said: “The bill left the other place (House of Commons) reflecting the reality of international law and I see no reason to change the bill any further.”

Speaking after the vote, Lord Newby, the Lib Dem leader in the Lords, said: “It was frankly ridiculous to enshrine this date in law from the get-go.

“In negotiations you have to be flexible and willing to change direction if it is not in your best interests, and putting this date down as a benchmark was never in the best interests of the UK.

“Thankfully, the House of Lords has had the sense to overturn this attempted government power-grab.”

Earlier, peers had also defeated the Government by 298 votes 227 on an amendment which would enable the UK to remain part of some European agencies after Brexit.

Baroness Smith, Labour’s leader in the Lords, said: “These two amendments are a further opportunity for MPs to consider the finer details of this important legislation.

“On our future working relations with EU agencies, many people – including within government – are only now becoming aware of the massive issues raised by our departure that ministers need to get right.

“It was also a nonsense for the government to include a fixed exit date – something that could overshadow the crossing of every ‘t’ and dotting of every ‘i’ in the negotiations. The House of Lords amendment is not about stopping Brexit but the fine print of when and how the agreements are concluded.”