Theresa May is on track to trigger the formal process of taking Britain out of the EU in the last week of March after MPs backed the legislation that gives her the power to do so and the Lords balked at picking a fight over their own efforts to soften it.
Despite widespread rumours that Mrs May would initiate the exit as early as Tuesday, government figures said on Monday that Article 50 of the Lisbon treaty would not be triggered for another two weeks.
One Westminster figure said ministers were concerned that triggering Article 50 this week could “make it look as though [Mrs May] is cavalier about the union” in light of Nicola Sturgeon’s announcement that she wants a new Scottish independence referendum.
Downing Street denied that Mrs May had moved the date as a result of the intervention by Scotland’s first minister.
The Article 50 bill returned to the House of Commons on Monday evening after the prime minister suffered two defeats in the House of Lords in the past two weeks.
Peers, including a clutch of Conservatives, had backed a proposal to offer EU citizens living in the UK a unilateral guarantee of their rights, and a separate plan to give parliament a “meaningful” vote on the final terms of Britain’s exit deal.
Although several pro-EU Tories spoke out in favour of the amendments during the Commons debate, most held back from rebelling against Mrs May. Just two voted against her on the EU citizens measure, while nine abstained on the “meaningful vote” amendment.
MPs voted to strike down the amendment on EU citizens by a majority of 48, and to strike down the “meaningful vote” amendment by a majority of 45.
The MPs accepted Brexit secretary David Davis’s verbal assurances that parliament would have a role in the Brexit process but the government had not offered them the further undertakings they had sought, so they felt unable to either back the amendment or to vote against it, according to one person with knowledge of their thinking.
Downing Street had appealed to MPs not to back the peers’ amendments, saying that it wanted the short bill to pass unamended.
After the votes by MPs the bill returned to the Lords on Monday night where peers voted heavily to reject both their own amendments, completing the bill’s legislative progress. The amendment on the rights of EU citizens was defeated with a government majority of 139; the demand for a “meaningful vote” in parliament on the final deal lost by 156 votes.
Mr Davis said Britain was now on the threshold of the most important negotiation for the country in a generation. “So we will trigger Article 50 by the end of this month as planned and deliver an outcome that works in the interests of the whole of the UK,” he said.
Although some Liberal Democrat peers had been expected to insist that peers voted once again on the two amendments, Labour figures in the Lords signalled that they did not have the appetite for continued confrontation.
Once the bill clears the Lords it will be referred for royal assent; that could take place as early as Tuesday. The bill will pass into law when royal assent is announced in both Houses.
Mrs May will then be free to trigger Article 50 whenever she chooses.
Downing Street dismissed speculation she could do so as early as Tuesday afternoon, when she is scheduled to update MPs on last week’s EU summit. The article would be triggered in the last week of this month, shortly before the deadline Mrs May set for herself.
“We have been clear that the prime minister will trigger Article 50 by the end of March,” the prime minister’s office said.
One government figure said: “I’ve said ‘end’ many times but it would seem I didn’t put it in capital letters quite strongly enough.” He confirmed Brexit would begin in the final week of the month, after EU celebrations to mark the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome.
European leaders are preparing for an imminent start to Brexit talks; if Article 50 is triggered before mid-month the EU-27 leaders are likely to meet on April 6.
On Sunday, Mr Davis and Liam Fox, international trade secretary, admitted the UK was preparing for a scenario where it left without a deal and would come under World Trade Organisation terms.
Pressed on the issue on Monday, Downing Street said Mrs May “shared [the ministers’] view that a bad deal would be worse than no deal”.
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