Arise Lord Brexit

It's a truism in politics that most people don't normally spend much time thinking about the House of Lords.

That all changes when legislation they really want passed is threatened. Suddenly they become one week abolitionists.

Of course, when legislation they dislike is being challenged, they're all for the Lords and not too keen on sudden unicameralism.

This time it's the Eurosceptic Right's turn to be outraged by their Lordships. For many fear that the Article 50 legislation will be amended to block it, in the hope of preventing Brexit.

In many ways, it feels as though the country has turned full circle from the late 1990s. Back then it was pretty miserable to be a right-winger, losing elections heavily, facing an almost impossible route back to power, losing referendums, being told from all sides that the great debates were permanently settled and you had lost and so forth. There was much talk of "this election will be the last fought on ideology". Eurosceptics were bluntly told that their opinion was invalid because so many had voted for pro-European parties. There was a real sense of having it crushed down that not just a battle but a war had been won and a new permanent settlement was here to stay.

Sound familiar?

However, what is definitely different is the media reaction and coverage of those who lost at the ballot box. It was never mentioned then that in 1997 Tony Blair and New Labour swept to power with the backing of about just 30% of the total electorate. Instead New Labour swept all before it. The Welsh devolution referendum passed by 50.3% on a 50.22% turnout. But very few talked about the "49.8%" or the "75%" (or whatever the percentage of the total population of Wales was). The media did not go hunting for regretful Yes/Yr voters. The referendum had to be followed up by primary legislation but few argued that it was only "advisory" and that Parliament should not enact it. Those who did were dismissed as anti-democrats who were disrespectful of the will of the people. There was no talk of further referendums on the final settlement or when question marks were raised about what had influenced voters.

(Ironically the one referendum whose implementation did get challenged a lot was the only one that did have the backing of over 50% of the total electorate, namely the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland.)

You can see from this why so many Eurosceptics are both gung ho and apprehensive about the current situation. Having been on the other end of the stick, they know all too well the importance of getting the great democratic mandate enacted as quickly as they can. They have little sympathy for those who showed them none. But they also don't feel as confident in their position as New Labour did. And they fear that victory will be snatched from their hands. They've lost time and again on European treaties. They've seen politicians promise referendums only to not deliver them, sometimes taking refuge in how proposals have been repackaged. They are aware of how pro Europeanism has consistently been much stronger in Parliament than in the country. And they see a significant chunk of political opinion that claims to want to have a say in shaping Brexit when it actually wants to stop Brexit altogether. Few believe that Gina Miller brought her court case merely because she wanted to see a debate in Parliament but because she and her supporters were trying any method they could to derail Brexit altogether.

The House of Commons votes have in fact been a surprise and it's to Jeremy Corbyn's credit that the official Labour line has been in favour of implementing the referendum result, thus boosting the confidence and stability that comes from having a much stronger majority for Article 50. But there's still concern that the Lords will frustrate the bill.

The Lords have traditionally taken their revising role seriously but often they've gone into battle over amendments to legislation rather than trying to vote down bills outright, at times trying to wreck the proposed legislation to the point where the government abandons it. So on such a charged piece of legislation, the amendments are seen through this prism.

The numbers in the Lords don't help either. There's always been disparity with the numbers both in the Commons and the votes in the most recent election, but the recent rise of Ukip and collapse of the Lib Dems have made the disparity stand out especially. Thus, the most Eurosceptic party has just three peers (all through defections) whilst the avowed anti-Brexit party have 102. The Conservative government is in a minority of about 300 in the Lords and pro-European grandees are even more prominent on the red benches than on the green.

It's thus a difficult gauntlet for the Lords to walk. Given that the Article 50 legislation comes off the back of a referendum result and not just a campaign, it's unlikely that disgruntled Eurosceptics would move on and forget about the chamber the way many have when their pet bill has been derailed. But Lords reform is perhaps the single hardest thing to achieve in British politics. Many do not want to make kneejerk changes and want a broad consensus on the chamber. Many will simply not compromise and there's only so far that cries of "Democracy!" will go. The experience of other countries with elected upper houses has often thrown up discouraging examples - to take but the most prominent Westminster System example, it is hard to argue that the 11th of November 1975 was a glorious day for Australian democracy.

The bill itself is very straightforward and extremely short - a simple piece to allow the initiation of the UK's withdrawal process. Amendments that try to move beyond that initiating are naturally viewed with suspicion, whatever the merits of the individual matters in the wider Brexit debate. If the Lords accept a Commons reversal of any amendment on the first return, then we'll probably all forget about Lords reform for the next few years. If they insist upon the amendments, then things will get interesting.


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