Pro-Brexit Conservative peers are staging a last-ditch effort to stop the bill to block no-deal becoming law.
Tories have tabled more than 100 amendments in the House of Lords designed to eat up the time available to get Hilary Benn’s bill onto the statute book before parliament is suspended next week.
One Upper House insider described the Tory holdouts - who include former party leader Michael Howard and former cabinet ministers Peter Lilley and Michael Forsyth - as being “like the Japanese soldiers from the Second World War who stayed in the jungle and kept fighting after the war was over”.
Peers arrived in Westminster on Wednesday morning armed with sleeping bags, toothbrushes and changes of clothes for a battle of attrition which is expected to continue through the night and long into the next day.
The battle is over the allocation of time for debate in the House of Lords.
Unlike the Commons, parliament’s second chamber does not have a “guillotine” procedure to bring debates to a halt and prevent interminable speeches by members hoping to talk a measure out.
So Labour’s leader in the Lords, Baroness Smith of Basildon has tabled a motion to impose a timetable for forcing the Benn bill through all of its stages by 5pm on Friday, with the crucial second reading debate to be completed by 7pm on Thursday.
In response, a group of around a dozen hardcore Brexiteers have tabled dozens of amendments, many of them doing no more than change or delete a few words.
Other amendments attempt to give priority for debating time on Thursday to issues ranging from ecumenical marriage to bat habitats to land drainage.
Under Lords rules, each amendment can be forced to two votes, taking a total of half an hour to complete, resulting in a long and wearying debate designed to run down the clock.
A similar filibuster was attempted before Easter to obstruct Yvette Cooper’s bill to block no-deal, but on that occasion back-channel discussions between party managers made clear that the legislation would eventually be heard.
One Labour source said that no such assurances had been made this time round, suggesting Tory peers are willing to take the fight to the bitter end.
Under parliamentary rules, however, so long as the House has not adjourned, the debate is considered to be taking place “on Wednesday”.
This means that if Lady Smith’s motion eventually passes, the following days will be regarded as the Thursday on Friday set aside for the bill, even if it involves sitting through the weekend.
“Wednesday could be the longest day,” said the source. “Clearly people are intent on trying to stop the House getting to debate the Benn bill if it gets through the Commons. But the mood among supporters of the bill is positive. Our peers are outraged but they are up for this.”
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