Lords mull new Brexit vote after economic impact leak

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Britain is due to leave on March 29, 2019, but the opposition argue the government may need some flexibility if the negotiations with Brussels on a departure deal run over. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

LONDON (AFP) - Britain's House of Lords on Tuesday (Jan 30) debated the merits of a second EU referendum as peers began scrutiny of a key Brexit Bill, while ministers sought to downplay a leaked government report offering only economic downsides to leaving the bloc.

A record 188 peers have requested to speak during the two-day opening debate on the EU (Withdrawal) Bill, with many of them likely to be critical of Prime Minister Theresa May's Brexit strategy.

The Bill is crucial to Britain's withdrawal from the EU, providing for the repeal the 1972 act that made Britain a member and transferring four decades of EU regulations onto the British statute books.

In the first sign of the trouble the Lords could cause the government, an opposition Labour lawmaker tabled a motion regretting the Bill did not provide for a second referendum on the final Brexit deal.

"Just the first say on Brexit was given to the people, so the final say should rest with the people once they see the terms proposed by the government," said Andrew Adonis.

Dick Newby, the leader of the pro-European Liberal Democrats in the upper house, has said he would back such a referendum, and criticised May's wider approach.

"We're hurtling towards March 29 next year with no hand on the steering wheel," he said, referring to exit day.

Adonis' motion is unlikely to go to a vote this week, but signals one of the battles ahead.

It is another headache for May as she seeks to quell eurosceptic unrest in her own Conservative party, ahead of the start of trade talks with the EU in April.

Tensions risked being further strained by the leak of a government economic assessment to BuzzFeed showing growth would be weaker than expected under three of the most plausible Brexit scenarios.

'UNDERMINE OUR EXIT'

London has called for a "deep and special partnership" with the European Union after Brexit, but has yet to set out exactly how the trading arrangement would work.

House of Lords member James Bridges, a former Brexit minister, said there were still "no clear answers" to basic questions about what Britain wanted.

Bridges said he was concerned that a transition period after Brexit would be "a gang plank into thin air" without a clear vision for the future.

The leaked Brexit impact assessment examined three of the most plausible scenarios - none of them a bespoke deal.

It estimated that growth would be between two percent and 8 per cent lower than forecast over the next 15 years.

Brexit minister Steve Baker said it was a "selective interpretation of a preliminary analysis. It is an attempt to undermine our exit from the European Union".

But it fuelled calls to publish the assessment to allow the public to make up their own minds.

Some eurosceptic MPs fear the government is moving away from a clean break towards closer ties, which they argue would be "Brexit in name only".

The splits have prompted reports of fresh leadership moves against May, who has struggled to assert her authority since losing her parliamentary majority in a snap election last year.

But Trade Secretary Liam Fox, who campaigned for Brexit, told the Sun newspaper that eurosceptics must "live with disappointment" and accept that Britain could maintain close ties with the EU.

'WHOLLY UNACCEPTABLE POWERS'

The EU (Withdrawal) Bill has already been the cause of a government defeat, after MPs last year demanded that parliament vote on the final exit deal.

May's Conservative Party commands a slim majority in the Commons thanks to the support of a small Northern Irish party, but is outnumbered in the unelected Lords.

Peers are likely to seek amendments on a range of constitutional issues, notably the bill's powers for ministers to amend the EU laws as they are moved across into British statute books.

A Lords committee this week said the so-called Henry VIII powers were "wholly unacceptable".

Labour and the Liberal Democrats will also seek to remove a date and time set for Brexit day in the Bill.

They argue there must be some flexibility on when Britain leaves the bloc in case negotiations with the EU run on.

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