The UK is sinking deeper into an unfolding constitutional crisis, the Scottish Government’s Brexit spokesman warned as peers prepared to take on Downing Street over its plans for devolution after the country leaves the EU.
Michael Russell blasted the UK government as “irresponsible” and “insulting” for failing to bring forward amendments to the European Union Withdrawal Bill to prevent a Brexit “power grab”.
Theresa May faces the risk of the vital legislation being stuck in the House of Lords for months, with Labour peer Lord Foulkes pledging to push forward an amendment that would tie it to consent from the Scottish Parliament.
Manoeuvres in the Lords added to the Prime Minister’s woes on Brexit as a growing number of her backbenchers voiced unhappiness at the terms the government is prepared to accept for a two-year post-Brexit transition period.
Last night Mr Russell joined Welsh counterparts to brief peers on changes the devolved administrations want to see in order to secure their consent for the withdrawal bill – the first such joint approach to the Lords since 1999.
The Liberal Democrats, who have 100 peers in the second chamber, confirmed they would act on the Scottish Government’s behalf, pushing forward its changes even if there is no agreement between Edinburgh and London about how to fix the withdrawal bill.
Opposition peers also plan to defy the government by seeking to strip the date of the UK’s exit from the EU out of the legislation, and insisting MPs are given a vote on the final Brexit deal even if talks in Brussels break up without agreement.
Debate in the Lords starts today, with more than 190 peers having requested to speak. The Lib Dem leader in the second chamber, Lord Newby, said “90 per cent at least would be pretty hostile to the government”.
Claiming “a constitutional crisis is already here”, Mr Russell said: “The UK government says it wants to amend the bill, but seven months after we started talking we haven’t seen any sign of an amendment.
“We are endeavouring to have conversations, but it does take two … there needs to be a sense of urgency from the UK government, combined with a proposal for an amendment that can sensibly be discussed with the devolved administrations.
“After seven months of this bill, I think that’s tardy. Some might call it lackadaisical. Some might call it insulting.”
Today marks one year since the last time the Prime Minister and the Scottish and Welsh first ministers met to discuss Brexit, and a meeting of the ministerial forum on the EU was pushed back from January into next month.
Conservative and UK government sources insist good progress is being made to agree amendments between ministers in Edinburgh and London, but draft changes have yet to emerge from Whitehall.
“This is the most chaotic and ridiculous set of circumstances I can remember ever seeing in politics,” Mr Russell said.
“[The Conservatives] can’t agree with each other, let alone the devolved administrations. This is irresponsible, damaging and it’s doing an awful lot of harm.”
A report from the Lords Constitution Committee yesterday found the withdrawal bill was “fundamentally flawed” as currently drafted.
Lib Dem leader Sir Vince Cable said he believed the Liberal Democrats could win enough support to get at least ten amendments through an “unholy alliance” with pro-Brexit Conservative rebels.
The Lib Dem leader said: “The ending of the fixed date of exit is extremely important because you are now getting Remainers arguing this is ludicrous and is boxing the government into a very bad negotiating position, but you are even now getting the Rees-Moggs saying transition is a vassal state and it makes much more sense to postpone exit.
“I would have thought we are going to get a bit of an unholy alliance to stop an absolute hard date at the end of March.”