I wrote last week that people should calm down about the High Court’s judgment, because Article 50 would still be voted through Parliament. The events of the last few days have only made that more likely.
For a start, as Paul noted early on Wednesday morning, Trump’s victory in the presidential election will have left Labour MPs quaking in their boots even more than they were before. June’s referendum made a deep impression on a lot of Labour MPs, as they knocked on door after door only to find voters on whom they thought they could rely telling them to get lost. This film by The Guardian‘s John Harris, in which he follows Ruth Smeeth round the doorsteps of her core vote in Stoke-on-Trent, is a vivid demonstration of how grim many MPs found the experience.
Since 24th June, while a few Opposition MPs have stuck to the hardcore Continuity Remain position, most have been frantically trying to work out how to avoid further angering voters who bluntly rejected their case on the EU. The more inquiring have undertaken proper investigation into what their Leave-voting constituents want – including, I’ve pleasantly surprised to hear, recognising that while immigration is undoubtedly important, the return of democratic control more generally is also a priority. Even those who haven’t really understood the Leave victory, though, mostly realise that being seen to stand in the way of Brexit would be bad for their political health. That’s why Corbyn’s threat last Sunday to vote against Article 50 collapsed so swiftly – his MPs wouldn’t wear it.
That feeling on the Labour benches will only have been intensified by watching the results roll in during the early hours of Wednesday morning. The attempts to argue that Trump equals Brexit are bogus, and vastly overblown, but that doesn’t change the fact that for many Labour MPs the sight of a popular revolt, including by voters the Democrats took for granted, brought back deeply uncomfortable memories of that night in June. Should the recollection have faded a little in any of their minds as the months passed then it has just been painfully refreshed. They are even less likely than they were a week ago to risk incurring further wrath from their constituents.
Labour peers, of course, don’t have to face voters, and may therefore be more tempted to try to block a Brexit Bill. But they will come under an increasing amount of pressure from their colleagues on the green benches. Sure, Kinnock and other hardcore EU enthusiasts (not to mention recipients of generous EU pensions) may well hold out, but others will be swayed by the message that blocking action risks bringing down electoral disaster on their party. Trump’s victory will make that message from MPs more frantic and will make some Labour peers more receptive to it, too.
There are of course 606 other members of the House of Lords in addition to Labour’s 206. The 255 Conservatives would no doubt be whipped heavily to support a Brexit Bill, though again a hardcore minority may try to frustrate the process. The question then falls to what the Lib Dems (104 peers), crossbenchers (182) and assorted others choose to do.
Many – particular Lib Dem peers – are minded to obstruct any Brexit Bill that might come before them. But there are two factors coming into play against them doing so. The first is the creeping feeling that to pit their unelected chamber directly against the outcome of the biggest democratic exercise this country has ever seen would be to place the House of Lords in existential danger. They might like the EU, but they are also quite fond of being Lords and sitting in Parliament.
The second factor, which I’ve heard raised by Tory backbenchers and Cabinet ministers alike this week, is the Salisbury Convention. Put briefly, this is the agreement by which the House of Lords doesn’t block Government pledges that were in the manifesto at the previous election – for the same reason laid out above, that it isn’t the place of an unelected chamber to obstruct the clear will of the people.
Aha, Continuity Remain cry, but was Brexit in the 2015 Conservative manifesto? Well, yes it was. Turn to page 73, and you’ll find the referendum pledge followed by these words:
“We will honour the result of the referendum, whatever the outcome.”
Whatever. The. Outcome.
David Cameron evidently didn’t think a Leave victory likely when he made that pledge, but he made it nonetheless. The Conservatives won their majority on the back not only of promising a referendum but of promising to implement the result. If the High Court’s judgment stands, then implementing the Leave vote requires a Brexit Bill – and therefore the Salisbury Convention dictates that the Lords must not obstruct that Bill when it comes before them.
Of course, some peers may feel their principles or those aforementioned pensions are more important than the Salisbury Convention. That would be deeply hypocritical, given the very same people’s new-found enthusiasm for honouring the British constitution (an enthusiasm which has only emerged since last Thursday), but they may still try to ignore the way they are meant to act – it’s a convention, after all, not an article in a codified constitution. If so, though, they will simply be redoubling the risk of Lords reform.
Put another way, Article 50 is even more likely to pass than it was a week ago.