The House of Lords will not be bullied or “threatened” into writing the Prime Minister a “blank cheque” on Brexit, peers have said, as the upper house starts a long debate on the Government’s Article 50 bill.
Theresa May this afternoon took the highly unusual step of attending the House of Lords session in person, watching intently from the steps of the Queen’s golden throne.
The Prime Minister’s spokesperson told journalists that Ms May was sitting on the steps “in recognition of the importance of this bill as it proceeds through the Lords”. Asked whether Ms May was seeking to intimidate peers he said the Government “holds the House of Lords in the highest regard”. Ms May is entitled to attend the chamber by virtue of her membership of the privy council.
Peers are again expected to debate late into the night on Tuesday. The twin late-night sittings follow similar episodes in the House of Commons earlier this month, with MPs queuing to speak on the subject. Lords are not expected to actually vote on the bill until next week at the earliest.
Labour’s leader in the upper house, Baroness Angela Smith, told her colleagues that it would be “irresponsible” to “merrily wave the Government off to negotiate our future without parliamentary engagement or accountability”.
She criticised MPs and an “anonymous government source” who had reportedly called for the Lords to either be abolished or stuffed with compliant peers to pass the bill without delay.
“My Lords, we will not be threatened into not fulfilling our normal constitutional role – and neither will we be goaded into acting irresponsibly. We have to have a serious and responsible debate,” she said.
“And in doing so, if we ask the House of Commons to look again at an issue, it is not a constitutional outrage but a constitutional responsibility.
“And it is the House of Commons that will, as always, and quite rightly, have the final say. So, let’s be very clear. As I have said so many times before, in your lordship’s House, and publicly we will not block, wreck or sabotage the legislation before us.
“Whatever our personal views, disappointments and genuine concerns for the future that is not the role of this House.
“But, I’ve also said, neither should we provide the Government with a blank cheque. It would be irresponsible to, and merely ask them to return two years later with a deal.
“If sovereignty is to mean anything, it has to mean parliamentary responsibility.”
Lord Cashman, a longtime campaigner on LGBT issues, pledged to vote against the bill if it was not amended, arguing that “you do not ditch your principles because they’re unfashionable or unpopular”.
“Worlds are changed for the better by people who have the courage to be unpopular and do what is right, and decent, and good, and just for the long term. Not to give into intimidation, threats, or bullying,” he said.
Some Remain-supporting Conservative peers however warned against impeding the Article 50 process. Lord Hague, the former Conservative party leader and Foreign Secretary, said he was worried that amendments might turn out “not to be so well thought out in two years time” and that they might undermine Britain’s negotiating position.
He described Tony Blair’s intervention calling for people to “rise up” against Brexit last week as a “great mistake” – citing his own acceptance of defeat at the 2001 general election to Mr Blair as a case in point.
What experts have said about Brexit
What experts have said about Brexit
1/11 Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond
The Chancellor claims London can still be a world financial hub despite Brexit “One of Britain’s great strengths is the ability to offer and aggregate all of the services the global financial services industry needs” “This has not changed as a result of the EU referendum and I will do everything I can to ensure the City of London retains its position as the world’s leading international financial centre.”
2/11 Yanis Varoufakis
Greece's former finance minister compared the UK relations with the EU bloc with a well-known song by the Eagles: “You can check out any time you like, as the Hotel California song says, but you can't really leave. The proof is Theresa May has not even dared to trigger Article 50. It's like Harrison Ford going into Indiana Jones' castle and the path behind him fragmenting. You can get in, but getting out is not at all clear”
3/11 Michael O’Leary
Ryanair boss says UK will be ‘screwed’ by EU in Brexit trade deals: “I have no faith in the politicians in London going on about how ‘the world will want to trade with us’. The world will want to screw you – that's what happens in trade talks,” he said. “They have no interest in giving the UK a deal on trade”
4/11 Tim Martin
JD Wetherspoon's chairman has said claims that the UK would see serious economic consequences from a Brexit vote were "lurid" and wrong: “We were told it would be Armageddon from the OECD, from the IMF, David Cameron, the chancellor and President Obama who were predicting locusts in the fields and tidal waves in the North Sea"
5/11 Mark Carney
Governor of Bank of England is 'serene' about Bank of England's Brexit stance: “I am absolutely serene about the … judgments made both by the MPC and the FPC”
6/11 Christine Lagarde
IMF chief urges quick Brexit to reduce economic uncertainty: “We want to see clarity sooner rather than later because we think that a lack of clarity feeds uncertainty, which itself undermines investment appetites and decision making”
7/11 Inga Beale
Lloyd’s chief executive says Brexit is a major issue: "Clearly the UK's referendum on its EU membership is a major issue for us to deal with and we are now focusing our attention on having in place the plans that will ensure Lloyd's continues trading across Europe”
8/11 Colm Kelleher
President of US bank Morgan Stanley says City of London ‘will suffer’ as result of the EU referendum: “I do believe, and I said prior to the referendum, that the City of London will suffer as result of Brexit. The issue is how much”
9/11 Richard Branson
Virgin founder believes we've lost a THIRD of our value because of Brexit and cancelled a deal worth 3,000 jobs: We're not any worse than anybody else, but I suspect we've lost a third of our value which is dreadful for people in the workplace.' He continued: "We were about to do a very big deal, we cancelled that deal, that would have involved 3,000 jobs, and that’s happening all over the country"
10/11 Barack Obama
US President believes Britain was wrong to vote to leave the EU: "It is absolutely true that I believed pre-Brexit vote and continue to believe post-Brexit vote that the world benefited enormously from the United Kingdom's participation in the EU. We are fully supportive of a process that is as little disruptive as possible so that people around the world can continue to benefit from economic growth"
11/11 Kristin Forbes
American economist and an external member of the Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England argues that the economy had been “less stormy than many expected” following the shock referendum result: “For now…the economy is experiencing some chop, but no tsunami. The adverse winds could quickly pick up – and merit a stronger policy response. But recently they have shifted to a more favourable direction”
Conservative peer Baroness Susan Williams opened the debate for the Government, saying that the long list of peers waiting to speak was “testament to the seriousness with which this House takes its constitutional duty to scrutinise legislation”.
The Government’s European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill was drawn up after the Supreme Court ruled that Parliament had to give consent for the Government to trigger Article 50.
Ministers had previously argued that Theresa May had prerogative power to withdraw Britain from the European Union and that they did not need to consult MPs and peers.
MPs failed to amend the bill during its House of Commons stages despite minor rebellions by some Remain-supporting Conservative MPs. Though peers cannot block the legislation, they can delay it – throwing a spanner in the works of the Government's timetable.