LONDON (Reuters) – The upper house of the British Parliament is expected to inflict a shameful defeat on Theresa May's government on Wednesday, challenging her refusal to remain in a customs union with the European Union after Brexit.
The Prime Minister, who has fought to unite to its conservatives on Brexit, said Britain will leave the single market and the EU customs union after leaving the block in March so that London can negotiate its own free trade agreements.
This position has widened the divisions within the party and has raised the possibility of a defeat in the Upper House of Lords, where the Conservatives have no majority.
Some Lords, on all sides, have indicated their support for an amendment to their Brexit plan, the draft EU withdrawal law, which would require ministers to report on the efforts they had made to ensure a customs union by the end of October.
It does not explicitly say that Britain should reach an agreement on such a union. Conservative lawmaker David Jones described it as an attempt to "give oxygen" to EU supporters in the lower house.
"It's a very strange amendment, frankly, that would not stop Brexit and would not force us to stay in the customs union," he told Reuters, adding he was not too worried about the vote.
The government is expected to suffer several defeats in the Lords during the remaining stages of the debate in the coming weeks.
The leader of the main opposition party in the Lords, Angela Smith, said that the amendments of the upper house were an opportunity to offer May "the opportunity to present sensible changes in response to concerns previously raised in the Lords." .
"However, not doing so will be tantamount to tearing down the can what could be a very rocky road," he said in a statement.
If the government is defeated, the bill will go back to the House of Commons, where the prime minister could try to get support to revoke the amendment. Both chambers have to agree on the final draft of the bill before it can become law.
A vote in the Commons could come as early as next month and would add pressure on May – some of whose legislators want Britain to remain in a customs union with the EU – while talks on a future trade agreement with the EU begin the block .
After losing the majority of the Conservative Party in a misjudged election last June, May has the support of a small party from the north of Ireland to pass the legislation.
The debate on the permanence in a customs union with the European Union has become one of the main focuses of the Brexit debate, which has sown divisions in Great Britain.
The main opposition Labor Party says that it would want a new customs union if it was in charge of the Brexit negotiations. The Commerce Minister in May, Liam Fox, and others see a deal as anathema if it prevents London from negotiating its own trade agreements.
But a customs union that sets external tariffs for goods imported into the EU and allows them to move freely, would offer a solution to the problem of guaranteeing no return to a hard border with the block on the island of Ireland.
According to one of his former officials, May could seek a compromise in a customs agreement if it meant safeguarding the union of the United Kingdom by preventing the return of a hard border or allowing Northern Ireland to be effectively cut off from the mainland. Britain by keeping its regulations in line with the EU.
When asked if May had a message for her peers, her spokeswoman said she would not get ahead of parliament. But he added: "The Prime Minister … has made it very clear that the British voted to leave the EU and expect us to sign trade agreements around the world."
"When the Prime Minister has left, that means that we are leaving the customs union," he told reporters.
The May government has already postponed votes on a trade law and a tax bill after lawmakers tried to force the amendments that would instruct ministers to try to remain in a customs union with the EU.
With talks about a future trade agreement under way in Brussels this week, and with his team gaining confidence after winning international support for their tough stance on Syria, May could hope to overcome the shame.
"I do not think it has the desired effect," said Jones, a former Brexit minister.
Written by Elizabeth Piper; Edition by Catherine Evans