Christopher Howarth is a senior researcher working in the House of Commons. Prior to this he worked for Open Europe, as a Conservative Foreign Affairs Adviser and senior researcher to a Shadow Europe Minister.
Walking through Speaker’s Court in the Houses of Parliament yesterday I witnessed Lord Heseltine (House of Lords attendance record 2.8 per cent) getting out of his car to join the debate on Article 50. I assume he will vote against. In the chamber among others we heard from New Labour architect and former UK Commissioner Lord Mandelson, with Lord Hague looking on. When we eventually add in Lord Kerr, the supposed author of Article 50, and Lord Hill, the UK’s penultimate EU Commissioner and the rare few who supported leaving the EU, such as Lord Lawson and Lord Tebbit, all the UK’s recent history of EU relations is there represented. It is fitting they should be there at the end. For that is what it will be. There is no going back, there is no Lords veto.
That is as it should be. The Lords passed the original EU Referendum Act, the Commons has voted by 498 votes to 114 to trigger Article 50 and all the Common’s amendments were defeated by healthy majorities of over 30 after assurances were given by Ministers.
The Lords can always be relied on for putting on a spectacle of British history and they are not going to disappoint this time. But that is it – the last time the peers took on the people on the scale needed to block Brexit was in 1909 to block Lloyd George’s budget, and they lost. The Lords will not defy the people on the comparatively lesser issue of the UK’s EU membership.
This is a remarkable turn of events particularly when you look at the curious composition of the Lords. There are 805 Peers, only 252 of whom are Conservative. Many even on the Conservative benches are instinctively pro-EU. The House of Lords has always reflected the establishment. Unfortunately, decades of appointments by Blair and Cameron of second-rate former politicians, former mandarins, quangocrats, and worse, has led it to fully reflect the views of the new metropolitan establishment that governs us. It is not surprising that there is much noble sympathy for the EU, an organisation that also values and gives a home to many of these same people and attributes
Yet despite the parlous position of the Lords there will be little opposition to Article 50. We may see a number of amendments passed, foremost among them amendments on non-reciprocal EU citizens’ rights and a strange request for second vote on the deal before it is agreed but there is no need for concern, the new establishment’s long favoured EU goose is well and truly cooked.
So what will happen? The Lords will continue their debates today and will then discuss their amendments on 27th February and 1st March. Third reading will follow on 7th March. Assuming the Lords have decided to send an amendment back to the Commons, Parliamentary ‘Ping Pong’ will then occur on Wednesday 8th March and – assuming the Lords decide not to go nuclear – Royal assent will follow immediately. The Prime Minister will then be empowered to give notice under Article 50, fulfilling the stipulations of the Supreme Court. On that timetable we could leave by March 2019.
But why the confidence? Surly there are some very ingenious EU-philes in the Lords? There are, but their room for manoeuvre for now is limited. They can ask the Commons to look again at the arguments for granting EU citizens the right to stay, but as I showed here this is a complex problem that cannot be dealt with in this Bill. They could ask for a second vote of Parliament, but on closer examination it does not stand up. The Prime Minister has already pledged a vote on the final deal with the EU, and attempting to force her to go back and reopen negotiations at five to midnight on some day in March 2019 is ridiculous. And trying to force a referendum to reverse the first referendum will not fly. They also realise that there will be no shortage of EU legislation over the next two years, so their chances for mischief and amendments are greater on the Great Repeal Bill.
So the game is up; we will soon trigger Article 50. The Lords will fulfil their constitutional duty to discuss and potentially ask the Commons to look again. The Upper Chamber accepted the referendum result on the day it passed the Referendum Bill. So sit back and watch the debates and the spectacle of history unfurl.