Theresa May has taken the highly unusual step of sitting in the House of Lords to hear peers being told by the government not to “frustrate” Brexit.
The prime minister sat on the steps in front of the Royal Throne as Lords leader Baroness Evans of Bowes Park told peers to respect the decision of the British people in last year’s referendum and the “primacy” of the elected House of Commons.
Mrs May took up her position, which she is permitted to occupy as a member of the Privy Council, as peers began debating the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal Bill).
The legislation, which will pave the way for the PM to trigger Article 50 of the EU treaties to formally begin Brexit, was passed unamended and by large majority of 372 MPs.
Mrs May used a by-election campaign visit to Stoke-on-Trent yesterday to urge peers not to hold up “what the British people want” by weighing the bill down with amendments.
And her presence in the Lords chamber ahead of two days of debate during the bill’s first stage in the upper chamber will be interpreted as a visual warning to peers seeking to amend the legislation.
Around 190 peers are expected to speak during the two days set aside for the bill’s second reading debate, the first time the upper chamber will debate the legislation.
Peers are not expected to vote on the bill this week but the government, which does not have a majority in the Lords, is braced for a battle over EU citizens’ rights and a meaningful parliamentary say on the final Brexit deal when the bill returns for its committee stage next week.
But Mrs May used a visit to the Emma Bridgewater factory in Stoke ahead of Thursday’s by-election to warn the Lords: “When the bill to allow the government to trigger Article 50 to start the Brexit process went through the House of Commons it went through with good majorities.
“It was not amended.
“I hope that the House of Lords will pay attention to that.
“Properly there will be debate and scrutiny in the House of Lords, but I don’t want to see anybody holding up what the British people want, what the people of Stoke-on-Trent voted for last year, which is for us to deliver Brexit, to leave the European Union.”
Labour’s leader in the Lords, Baroness Smith of Basildon, confirmed her party will seek to amend the bill to guarantee the rights of EU citizens in the UK and ensure a “meaningful” vote on the outcome of Brexit negotiations.
She stressed that if peers amend the bill “it is not a constitutional outrage but a constitutional responsibility”, but stressed that MPs will “as always, and quite rightly, have the final say”.
Asked why Mrs May had chosen to watch part of the Lords debate, a Downing Street spokesman said: “It’s just a recognition of the importance of this bill as it proceeds through the Lords.”
Challenged over whether the PM was seeking to use intimidation tactics and put pressure on peers, the spokesman responded: “We hold the House of Lords in the highest regard and have great respect for its constitutional right to perform the role that it does.”
Downing Street previously distanced itself from suggestions that the Upper House could come under threat of abolition if it sought to block or delay the bill, and the spokesman again said that he “did not recognise” the anonymous comment.