If you think the House of Lords will be your anti-Brexit knights in shining armour, prepare to be disappointed

In the end, the sovereign will of the British people to give up their global influence on one hand and to make themselves poorer on the other will not be frustrated

Tom Peck
Monday 20 February 2017 15:42
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The House of Lords' debate on Article 50 takes place on Monday and Tuesday
The House of Lords' debate on Article 50 takes place on Monday and Tuesday

You find a different kind of turkey in the Lords: older, wiser, free range. Indeed, if you come on the right day of the year, there’s even a turkey crown. And this week, the House of Lords become the latest turkeys to decide whether or not to vote for Christmas.

Well, not vote exactly – there’s no vote, that won’t be until later – and they’ve no choice but to vote for it. But this afternoon there will be a chance for a full 191 turkeys to stand up and opine, one after the other, long into the night, why Christmas – in this case, Brexit – is a terrible idea before, in accordance with a now clearly established timetable, it comes along all the same.

More members of the House of Lords have requested to take part in Monday and Tuesday’s Article 50 debates than on any matter since in 1997, when Tony Blair compelled them to debate and then vote on their own semi-annihilation. After a few late nights, the Lords overwhelmingly voted in favour of their own reform, most of the hereditary peers were kicked out, and that incident is as instructive as any about the complicated but clear limits of their power and influence.

The Lords are understood to be even less divided than the undivided Commons over the matter, in that there are not even a quarter of them who think Brexit will be anything less than a disaster.

Peter Mandelson: Peers should not 'throw in the towel’ over Brexit

It must be said that the Lords are not customarily known for playing to the gallery, not least because the galleries in the upper chamber are almost always empty. But they may not be today. Theresa May herself has suggested she hopes to attend the debates in person, a piece of interpersonal power play right up there with the Donald Trump arm-rip-cum-handshake.

After three full days of Commons debates two weeks ago, the bill passed unamended, and walking around Stoke-on-Trent on Monday morning the Prime Minister made it clear: “I don’t want to see anybody holding up what the British people want, what the people of Stoke-on-Trent voted for last year, which is for us to deliver Brexit, to leave the European Union.”

Quite what the Lords can and cannot do is a matter of great constitutional complexity, all framed by the unfortunate flowering of the troublesome idea of democracy. Lord Taverne is highly expected to make the well-worn point that the referendum result is irreversible, and therefore anathema to the ordinary function of parliamentary democracy.

Whether anybody will point out to him that the decision, taken 21 years ago, to give him a job for the rest of his life is also irreversible, we can but wait and see. The decision to do the same with, for example, the now convicted perjurer Jeffrey Archer is as every bit as irreversible as Brexit.

In the end, the sovereign will of the British people to give up their global influence on one hand and to make themselves poorer on the other will not be frustrated, but the Government is nonetheless braced for plenty of back and forth on the minor details.

The Lords will certainly seek a concession on the status of EU nationals living in Britain, even if our European counterparts will not match any promises until after the negotiations have begun. They, like the majority of the public, are in favour of a unilateral concession, something the Prime Minister is not prepared to give.

In any event, if there are any Remainers out there still hoping the Lords might arrive as their knights in shining ermine, expect to be sorely disappointed.

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