By Alexandra Phillips l March 8, 2017
LONDON-There was a sharp intake of breath yesterday as the House of Lords added a second amendment to the Government’s Brexit Bill. The legislation enabling Theresa May to trigger Article 50 by the end of the month has been tampered with in the upper house, frustrating the process and potentially creating a catastrophic delay that could scupper Britain’s departure.
Within the meddling Lords’ sights is the activation of rules under the Lisbon treaty signed by Gordon Brown that come into force at the start of April. The small print means that after this month, the departure of a member state from the EU would have to be agreed under qualified majority voting, meaning a majority of member states would have to agree to Brexit before Britain can leave.
The simple 137 word bill activating article 50 could now be ping ponged between the two houses, putting significant pressure on the process. With the Budget splicing the time period too, occupying up to 4 working days in Parliament, the week long duration of boomeranging the bill between the Commons and Lords is exacerbated further. Traditionally there has always been overwhelming pressure on peers to bow to the will of the elected chamber in the end, and the PM still has a good three weeks in hand.
Meanwhile UK diplomats have been sweet talking EU member states into aiding a smooth transition post Brexit and heeding Britain’s pragmatic trade conditions. Of those nations being cajoled into cooperation, Spain was targeted as one of Britain’s largest exporters. With 7% of her entire export market Britain-bound, Spain can ill afford to lose vital custom while she still copes with the strains of austerity designed to accommodate the beleaguered Euro.
It seems however that Britain’s enemy is within its own Houses of Parliament.
But facing the Lords is growing public opposition to their very existence. I mentioned in a previous article that the fragile position of the unelected second chamber would be called into question if peers attempted to block Brexit. And I was right. Following the most recent vote, more than 92,000 people have so far signed a petition for the Lords to be axed and replaced with elected members with a growing media backlash coming from all sides. The upper chamber, traditionally reserved for hereditary peers, but now occupied largely by political cronies, former party donors and ex cabinet secretaries put out to pasture, costs the British taxpayer £100 million a year and is the largest unelected political body in the world, after communist China’s National People’s Congress.
Much like his Prime Minister last month, the Minister for Brexit entered the House of Lords to watch the peers’ debate yesterday afternoon, symbolically embodying the will of the common man. Talking of the defeat David Davies stated
“It is clear that some in the Lords would seek to frustrate that process, and it is the Government’s intention to ensure that does not happen. We will now aim to overturn these amendments in the House of Commons.”
The amendment demanding a ‘meaningful’ (i.e. opportunity to scupper) vote on Brexit was brought by crossbenchers Lord Pannick and Lord Hannay as well as Labour’s Baroness Hayter and the Liberal Democrat’s Lord Oates, former Press Secretary to Nick Clegg. If the latter’s presence in the Lords by virtue of having been a political spin doctor is anything to go by, then the only credentials one needs to claim £300 a day to sit amongst has-beens and frustrate the course of democracy is a few seasons of front line communications for a political party. I wonder where the hell my own peerage is?
MPs will now come under significant pressure to throw out the House of Lords amendment when the Article 50 Bill returns to the House of Commons next week.
Theresa May has publically rebuked the meddling, saying it would encourage the EU to try to fix a bad deal after Brexit to blackmail the country into staying in the bloc.
Yet again May has come out fighting and has taken her first scalp. Former Chancellor Lord Heseltine was among Conservative peers who backed the amendment, going against his party and the Government’s wishes. He woke up this morning to find his 5 separate positions as a government advisor were no more. He had effectively been sacked, to many cheers from the general public.
This act of crucifixion was no doubt meted out as a warning against any rebels: block the Government’s will and there is a price to pay.
The only problem is many of the entitled posteriors on the Lords’ red benches have enough money stacked up in their coffers and sizeable pension pots to not miss the supplementary income. However this is not a fact that escapes the attention of many Brits, already disgusted by regular honours lists and peerages being doled out to loyal staffers by nepotistic and partisan Prime Ministers. This is certainly not something that would have escaped May’s attention either.
Business leaders have come out in disgust at the meddling, which they say will only harm May’s strength of hand in negotiations with Brussels.
My prediction is that with enough push back against the second chamber and with the validity of the Lords themselves again being publicly rebuked, the majority of peers (366 to 268) backing the amendment will be slashed.
The coming week will be one to watch. With the clock ticking towards the deadline to activate article 50 by the end of the month, I will either be celebrating, or helping to lead the revolt.
Alexandra Phillips is former Head of Media for the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), the political party in Britain that successfully campaigned to leave the EU and was aide to its charismatic leader Nigel Farage. She left UKIP after the referendum victory and joined the Conservative Party in order to ensure other big political ambitions are met in the U.K. She is a political advisor and communications consultant. Ms. Phillips is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis, of the conservative-online-journalism center at the Washington-based Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research.