Today’s Times (£) reports that continuity Remainers in the House of Lords are planning to try to ‘block’ – that is, delay – the triggering of Article 50 in the event that it should require legislation.
Baroness Wheatcroft, a former journalist at the Wall Street Journal and Times, gave this rather astonishing quote to her old paper: “At the moment I don’t think it’s sensible for the Lords, an unelected second chamber, to obviously stand in the way of a democratic vote. I’d like the Commons to do that.”
That last sentence is quite something. Wheatcroft clearly has no compunction about calling for the referendum to be sidelined – she just doesn’t believe that her own chamber is, at first resort, the best one to do the dirty work.
However should it come to it we are then assured that: “However, if it comes to a bill, I think the Lords might actually delay things. I think there’s a majority in the Lords for remaining.”
Of course, the Upper House is as firm a bastion of the Establishment as this country possesses. That is not usually a problem, so long as peers confine themselves to their proper role of offering expert advice to improve legislation.
Yet ever since Tony Blair set on his immensely damaging constitutional reform spree, the old equilibrium of the Lords has been lost.
When he sacked the hereditary peers he ditched the old system, which left power in the hands of cross-benchers, and created an unstable new arrangement wherein the Government simply has to pack the benches to outnumber the opposition. As a result the number of peers just keeps growing.
Again, a large number of semi-active lords is not necessarily a problem. Far from it, in fact: we only pay them when they turn up, so it’s a great way of keeping a diverse range experts on retainer to the nation, free of charge.
But when the bloat is driven purely by partisan appointments, it invites public scorn.
This is part of a wider pattern which has seen partisan politics corrupting the Chamber. With their Commons contingents either decimated or in disarray, Liberal Democrat and Labour peers are starting to treat the Upper House like a senate, which it is not.
Indeed, some of the former are boastful about how they defy the norms – and so subvert the purpose – of the House of Lords for partisan ends.
Suffice to say, a Senate remains – along with a codified constitution – one of the very worst ideas floating around British politics. It is an invitation for gridlock, a back door to a change in the voting system, and would replace an expert chamber with a second-rate duplicate of the Commons.
To preserve the House of Lords, May must set its intended function into law and devise a better, more stable means of appointing people to it – without making it democratic.
Such an approach should be heralded with a sharp, one-off reduction in the number of peers, to the point where the balance of power on the red benches rests once again with the Crossbenchers. If all this requires an explicitly temporary boost in the number of Conservative peers, then so be it.
Labour had 13 years to appoint new peers, and the Lib Dems received a job lot when Cameron foolishly planned to abolish the Lords – but if they intend to mount partisan opposition to the Government, that is the business of the Commons.