In the summer of 2012, plans for the most substantial reform of the House of Lords in history were shelved, following a backbench rebellion by more than 90 Tory MPs. The proposal would have fundamentally changed the make-up of the upper house ensuring that 80 per cent would be elected, with the total number of members halved to 450. This defeat for then Coalition Government highlighted the fragility of coalition politics, and demonstrated the opposition which many Conservatives have towards an elected upper house.
How ironic it is then, six years later, that the situation has almost completely reversed. Many of the same Tory MPs that fought against reform were left seething this week when the (unelected) Lords again inflicted heavy defeats on the Government’s flagship EU Withdrawal Bill. Among the 17 Tories to rebel were former ministers Michael Heseltine, Ros Altmann and Stephen Green. Notably 83 Labour peers also defied their front bench’s instruction to abstain.
The Lords have created an almighty headache for the Government. The Withdrawal Bill has now been amended a remarkable 14 times and is in a very different place to the one launched by the Brexit Secretary in September of last year. At some point the bill will eventually have to come back to the Commons, and welcoming it will be further potential amendments tabled by pro-EU Tory rebels aimed at keeping Britain in a customs union. In its current form, the text of EU Withdrawal Bill that will return to the Commons includes the following:
- Commitment for the UK Government to negotiate EEA membership
- Commits Britain to remain associated to a number of EU agencies
- Forces the Government to prepare for customs union membership
- Has no clear ‘exit’ day
- Commits Britain to adhere to the Charter of Fundamental Rights
- Includes a provision that a “meaningful vote” that would in effect stop a ‘No Deal’
The Government will now have to get the Commons to vote to take all these things out, or will have to concede on some of them, thereby resulting in a much softer Brexit than it is aiming for.
HoL reform 2.0?
The brazen attempts to defy the whip and defeat the Government on key Brexit legislation have prompted huge criticism from hard-Brexiteers. Tory MP Daniel Kawcynski stated “The time has come to have a root-and-branch reform. These people are now hurting the UK’s negotiating position with Brussels, which is unforgivable”. Former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith likewise claimed menacingly that “after this is all over, there will have to be a reckoning, a complete and total overhaul of the House of Lords”. Leading Brexiteer Bernard Jenkin also commented: “They (the Lords) have become drunk with their own prejudices in defiance of how the people voted in the referendum and the last general election.”
It is of course interesting that many of the Brexiteers seething at the Lords’ ‘betrayal’ also rejected the proposals for meaningful reform under the Coalition. Daily Telegraph journalist Michael Deacon has helpfully compiled a list of the main Brexiteers that voted to defeat Nick Clegg’s ambitions in 2012.
Once Brexit is all said and done, expect this issue to return when manifestos are being drafted ahead of the next General Election. It is unlikely that this week’s events will be forgotten easily.
Not for turning, is no longer an option
The ambition to ‘make a success of Brexit’ is becoming an increasingly difficult one. Prior to these events, there was the expectation that next week the EU Withdrawal Bill would re-emerge and make its way back to the Commons. This now looks unlikely, as the Government made no mention of its return when announcing the provisional schedule for debates for the next two weeks on Thursday. This is part of an emerging trend of delays. Associated bills such as the Taxation Bill and the Trade Bill have been waiting for debate since the start of February. Three further bills, relating to immigration, agriculture and fisheries have yet to even begin their parliamentary journeys. It is clear that the Government is looking to buy extra time which is rapidly becoming very difficult to purchase.
These delays are perhaps understandable. Theresa May first needs to secure a cabinet consensus on what sort of customs arrangement Britain will negotiate for. The options include May’s preferred “New Customs Partnership” and the Brexiteers’ favoured “Maximum Facilitation (Max Fac) Model”. The Brexit war cabinet, split into two groups to consider each proposal, has until Tuesday next week to consider both options before reconvening to come to a decision. This exercise is of course being undertaken in the full knowledge that the EU has already rejected both proposals.
During PMQs, the Prime Minister once again ruled out Customs Union membership. This option is favoured by the EU, pro-EU Tory rebels, and the Labour leadership and most of its parliamentary party. The vote on customs membership would be winnable, but would inevitably result in cabinet walk-outs and likely lead to a no confidence motion in Theresa May via the 1922 committee.
The big question is; with a left-wing Labour party waiting in the wings, what do Brexiteers fear more? A ‘betrayal’ of Brexit; or a Corbynite government? Time will tell.