Would the Lords manage to wreck the glorious simplicity of the Brexit Bill passed by the Commons? David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, wished to avert any such outrage.
But while opening the short debate on the Lords amendments, he adopted the laid-back tone of an old House of Commons hand, who has no desire to antagonise disconsolate MPs, whether on his side or the other, and indeed recognises the genuineness of their concerns, while disputing the efficacy of their proposed solutions.
So Davis accepted that the Government has “a moral responsibility” to guarantee the rights of EU citizens living in this country. His word at the Dispatch Box was, he added, binding on the Government, and legislating to this effect, as the Lords proposed, would only benefit the lawyers.
Davis suggested some of the Lords wished to reverse the result of the referendum, and said they would certainly weaken the Government’s negotiating position.
Sir Keir Starmer, opening for Labour, sided with the peers. He was appalled that the Government proposed to use the EU citizens living in the UK “as a bargaining chip”.
And yet Sir Keir somehow managed to keep his horror within bounds. He did not sound like a man who thought he was about to inflict a humiliating defeat on the Government.
Sir Oliver Letwin, who spent many years as David Cameron’s right-hand man, demonstrated with a dazzling display of logic that sub-clause four in the Lords amendment, which would require the prior approval of Parliament to any deal reached, or not reached, by the Government, was “deeply deficient as a matter of law”.
No one disputed his logic. Sir Bill Cash (Con, Stone) agreed the measure would be “a gift to the courts, a gift to the lawyers”.
Anna Soubry (Con, Broxstowe) instead claimed “this is all about parliamentary sovereignty”. Parliament, she claimed, must be able to vote even in the event of the Government reaching no deal and “falling off the cliff edge”, which would be “the worst possible outcome”, for it would endanger the Union both with Northern Ireland and with Scotland.
One of the wonderful effects of Brexit has been to impel Remainers, such as Soubry, to speak in vehement support of parliamentary sovereignty.
Nick Clegg, the former leader of the Liberal Democrats, spoke in even more vehement support of his mother and his wife, who are, respectively, Dutch and Spanish, and who for him make the fate of the three million EU citizens living in this country a deeply personal matter.
Joanna Cherry (SNP, Edinburgh South West) raised the temperature yet further by quoting a Lithuanian constituent who had told her this country is now “worse than Lithuania under the Soviets”.
Mark Harper (Con, Forest of Dean) expressed the hope that Cherry had been able to give her constituent “very clear reassurances” that the position of EU citizens living here will in fact be protected. Cherry just said her constituent did not have private health insurance, so could not apply for permanent residence. But it seemed clear that MPs want to get rid of that stipulation, as part of a deal which protects Britons in the rest of the EU as well as EU citizens living in the UK.
Once the Lords amendments had been defeated by 48 votes and 45 votes, with not a single Tory voting against and only a handful abstaining, it was clear too that the Commons was in no mood to yield to the Lords.
Clegg, incidentally, had mothers on his mind, for he also referred to the Commons as “the mother of Parliaments”. That is a widespread but regretable misconception: in 1865 John Bright declared, in a speech supporting the extension of the franchise, that “England is the mother of Parliaments”.
England, one might add, is the mother of Brexit. But that is not a line which would ever occur to Clegg.