Liz Truss is facing a rebellion in the House of Lords over the Northern Ireland Brexit protocol which is proceeding to its next stage just as negotiations to end the dispute with the EU are resumed.
It is scheduled to get a second reading in the House of Lords on Tuesday but peers organising the rebellion are planning to let it squeak through for tactical reasons.
They want to keep their powder dry until the committee stage on 25 October when they can try to delay the bill indefinitely with an amendment preventing it completing its House of Lords stages until an impact assessment is produced.
One peer, who opposes the bill, said they did not see why the government wanted to “bulldoze ahead” with it given the “smoke signals that there is a better prospect of a negotiation between both sides”.
Last Friday, ministers from the Irish and British governments presented an upbeat assessment of talks, which reopened last week, saying they would both strive to get a breakthrough that would lead to power-sharing at Stormont being restored and a deal that would balance the interests of all sides, including the unionist communities.
The Northern Ireland secretary, Chris Heaton-Harris, defended the UK’s right to push ahead with the bill, but said it would be a “redundant piece of legislation” if a deal was reached.
The shadow Northern Ireland secretary, Peter Kyle, called on the government to “drop the redundant Northern Ireland protocol bill” and give negotiations a chance.
Behind the scenes a group of between 40 and 50 peers have met for a second time to discuss how to stop the bill getting on to the statute books.
“The Lords do not traditionally obstruct the Commons but the feeling is so strong. One can understand why nobody trusts the British government because they speak with a forked tongue, entering negotiations but threatening to break the law at the same time,” said one peer.
“It may look like we are capitulating on Tuesday but we are not, we are committed to stopping this,” said one of those organising the rebellion. “We have peers from all parties including the Conservatives.”
The peers met to discuss tactics last Thursday and decided there was little point in trying to prevent the bill getting to the committee stage on Tuesday.
Lord Arbuthnot, a Conservative peer, is one of those who attended the meeting and said he was “extremely concerned about breaking international law” and would vote against it if necessary.
One source at Thursday’s meeting said: “Truss may be laying the groundwork for an agreement with the EU but this bill represents a sword of damocles which threatens to cause irreparable reputational and economic damage to the UK. It must be taken off the table.”