Last week saw the highly contentious EU Withdrawal Bill pass from the House of Commons to the House of Lords in what was widely agreed to have been a smooth passage for the Bill.
However, with its second reading set to take place early next week in one of the largest and most Europhilic parliamentary chambers in the world and the European Union respectively, it is here where we can expect the real action to happen.
The main battlegrounds will be those of the committee stages, expected to take place between the February recess and Easter, with report and third reading stages to follow and ping pong likely to take hold thereafter.
We’ve already seen what these battlegrounds might look like from committee interventions, the most damning of which has come from the highly regarded Lords Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee (DPRRC). As well as promising to publish a full report before the second reading, it’s argued in its interim report that the Bill’s proposed Henry VIII powers’ scope are too broad, the likes of which they have never seen before in fact, considering some of them to be “wholly unacceptable”.
In any case, debate in the lords will be forensic in nature and no doubt acrimonious at times. After all, this is exactly the type of Bill that members of the House of Lords are qualified to scrutinise, and it is hardly likely that every peer will follow conventional party lines, with divisions set to emerge on some of the big issues. In other words, the government should prepare for defeats on the Bill if it proves intransient on the more divisive issues.
Once the Lords have finished with the Bill, there are two potential outcomes: either they throw it out completely at second reading or amend it substantially, the latter of which is almost guaranteed to be the case.
Simply, the desire to do anything other than amend the Bill for the sake of improving it and making clearer what the final relationship between the UK and the EU will look like, isn’t there, nor is the political will. To do otherwise and frustrate the will of the people, would bring the role and reputation of the Lords as an unelected chamber into question once more.
Instead, the Lords should look to carefully consider how best to use their powers to establish a middle ground between scrutiny and respect for the referendum result, upon which debate should then be based.
There can be no doubt, therefore, that the Lords are at their strongest when on the same side as the people, and so should not – and will not – kill the Bill.
By ‘the Lords’, I am principally referring to the Labour Party of course, for they hold the only true power in ‘blocking’ Brexit. As the main opposition party, they are the bedrock of any anti-government majority in the Lords, meaning a government defeat will only happen if Labour is on board. However, the cost the party would endure politically, should they choose to encourage peers to throw out major parts of the legislation, would be huge, and only possible if the leadership were to U-turn on their Brexit policy. This, we know, isn’t likely to happen as the strategy a party takes in the Commons is usually indicative of the approach it will take in the Lords.
Those concerns raised with the Bill when in the Commons can also be a good place to start in anticipating some of the key debate themes in the Lords and, again, indicative of what approach the Labour Party will take. For example, there remain issues unresolved from the Bill’s time in the Commons, namely around devolution, the status of EU law under the Bill and potential moves to remove the specific exit date of the UK in the Bill. Clearly, then, from the Lords’ perspective, there isn’t much point in defeating things that the government will simply reject or deploy the Parliament Act for. In this sense, the Lords’ time with the Bill will be as much about joint working, as it will be about a direct clash of ideologies and opinions.
Here comes the cavalry?
Let’s not forget the potential for new Conservative peers to be appointed in preparation for the Bill going through the Lords either, as has been reported. Despite Jacob Rees-Mogg’s intervention last week calling for May to appoint 200 or so new Conservative peers so as to defend against any attempts at blocking Brexit, to do so would be unnecessary.
The Lords has almost 800 members and so it would take far more than a handful of outspoken rebels to win a vote against the government. Take the Liberal Democrats, for example, the most anti-Brexit party in the Lords and often criticised the most for holding 100 Lords seats. Even with this number of seats, it falls well short of an overall majority. For there to be a full-blown attack on the government it would require a sizeable number of Crossbenchers too and, crucially, the support of the Labour Party which they will not give for the reasons outlined above.
Given the unpredictable times in which we now live, the Lords will provide a crucial and valuable source of scrutiny, drawing on lifetimes of experience spanning the public policy sphere. However, if any political authority is to ‘block’ Brexit, it can only justifiably be the House of Commons.