More defeats for the Government on the Brexit deal – but does it matter?

Am I the only one not to be too excited about the Lords riding a coach and horses through the EU Withdrawal Bill?

Before I explain why, let’s look at how the Lords have improved this Bill. When I say improve, it is all relative. There are some things you really can’t polish.

The Government defeats have come thick and fast, with Lib Dem lords leading the way.

1 and 2 on 18th April: An amendment in favour of staying in the Customs Union and  another limiting Minister’s powers to water down our rights

3- 5 on 23rd April when they took out the bit that removed the references to the Charter of Fundmental rights and the bites that gave ministers and preserved the rights of citizens to use the principles of EU law to challenge the government

6-7 on 25th April when Lords restricted the so-called Henry VIII powers which gave Ministers the right to do what they pleased without much in the way of referral to Parliament.

8-10 on 30th April  passed two amendments which gave Parliament a meaningful vote on the Brexit deal, allowing Parliament to decide what happens if it rejects the deal. Peers also passed Lord Dubs’ amendment on reuniting refugee families

11 -14 Last night their Lordships decided to keep us in the single market, give greater scrutiny of Brexit proposals to Parliamentary Committees, give Parliament powers against ministers using statutory instruments and remove the date of exit from the EU from the Bill.

So the Bill is now something that Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Liam Fox have nightmares about. It’s less horrendous than it was, and it would be even more so if the Liberal Democrat amendment calling for a People’s Vote on the Brexit deal had been passed.

But if the Bill comes through the Commons in this form, I’ll be looking to borrow a hat from Paddy Ashdown.

Once the Lords is finished with it, MPs get to vote on whether they accept the Lords amendments or not. The Government may offer concessions which MPs accept, or they may simply strip the amendments out. This is where the natural majority in the Commons for staying in the customs union and the single market could show itself, or it might bide its time, waiting for the Brexit deal vote.

I won’t be holding my breath for MPs to write staying in the single market and customs union into the Bill. However, if I’m wrong, then the Government will either implode in a toxic cloud of frothing brexiteer bile or MPs will be back the next day and the PM will make it an issue of confidence just like John Major did over Maastrict. Actually both of these things could happen. It would be dramatic, that’s for sure. Although a vote of no confidence wouldn’t necessarily mean a general election with the provisions of the Fixed Term Parliament Act, the political environment would be very excitable, the markets would go nuts and rebel Tories might well end up backing down. Alternatively, the Tories could just go into screaming meltdown. If it wasn’t the future of our country at stake, it could be pretty thrilling to watch.

Most likely, though, is that the Commons, like with the Article 50 Bill, will strip out all the good that the Peers inserted.

The interesting question would be what would happen next. The naked Bill would go back across Central Lobby and it would be up to the peers to reinsert their amendments.  If this all goes with tradition, the Upper House (ie the crossbenchers and Labour, not us) will just cave and it’ll be business as usual. I mean, we can’t possibly have unelected peers thwarting THE WILL OF THE PEOPLE, can we? That would be the same will of the people that the Brexiteers are unwilling to renew when it comes to the Brexit deal because only they have the right to determine what we want. The alternative view is that in these unprecedented times, the Lords would actually be protecting the rights of the people.

And so the last two paragraphs would repeat themselves until someone gives up. That would be an opportunity to show the public demand for change to the Government’s position.

I’m not convinced we’ll get to this stage, though. I reckon MPs will strip out the amendments, the Lords (except us) will give up and the Bill will pass. It will be an opportunity, but not the last opportunity, for Parliament to assert itself wasted.

Go on, then, Parliament. Prove me wrong.




* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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  • Michael Berridge 9th May '18 - 10:43am

    That tells it like it is. It looks as if we face a crisis of democracy.
    Perhaps it is time to ask ourselves what democracy actually is.
    And whether it still works.
    We are warned that our democracies “may simply fade away, hollowed out by forces of technological progress and social division that we lack the power to understand, never mind resist.”
    (Prof. David Runciman, from an article in the Cambridge University magazine CAM, Lent 2018. His new book How Democracy Ends will be published in May.)

  • paul holmes 9th May '18 - 12:22pm

    Michael – in what way would it be ‘a crisis of democracy’ if the democratically elected House of Commons voted against amendments put forward by the undemocratic, entirely appointed, House of Lords?

    Don’t get me wrong I agree with the Lords amendments. But the Commons is the democratically elected Chamber and the Liberals fought very very hard a century ago to stop the undemocratic Lords over riding the democratic Commons over the ‘people’s Budget’. You or I might not like the outcome but if the democratically elected Commons vote for something that is not a ‘crisis of democracy’. Quite the reverse.

  • paul barker 9th May '18 - 1:38pm

    The effect of these small victories is to give heart to everyone stillo fighting Brexit & to widen the divisions among Labour & Tory MPs & Members.
    If Brexit is to be stopped it will be at the last moment & probably in an utterly chaotic way. After that, who knows ?

  • Michael Berridge 9th May '18 - 5:45pm

    Paul Holmes -The crisis will be not in the Lords (doing its job as a revising chamber) but in the Commons, when elected members are afraid to stand up for the interests of their constituents for fear they may lose the votes of those constituents. Why voters are ignorant of their best interests is a long story, but the short version says it’s down to media and money.

  • Arnold Kiel 9th May '18 - 6:34pm

    I am quite confident that Labour and Tory rebels will uphold some of these amendments in the HoC. Labour must derail this Government, and pro-EU Tories are unlikely to subscribe to a hard Brexit. The trick will be to pick a set of amendments May herself doesn’t really mind (e. g. the customs union), so that she avoids a vote of no confidence. It all depends on the determination of Tory rebels. They must credibly threaten an end to the May government, just like the Brexiteers don’t mind doing.

  • Tony Greaves 9th May '18 - 9:31pm

    Thank you for your cynicism, Caron. What a pity that LD Voice cannot bring itself to praise out loud the fantastic work that the LD team is doing in the Lords, and help to tell the rest of the world about it.

  • Nom de Plume 9th May '18 - 9:50pm

    Tony Greaves has a point. Regardless of the political outcome, the attempts by the Lords to maintain a functioning relationship with the EU should be praised.
    With a possible trade war between the US and the EU over Iran, where to now Brexit Britain? All alone in a hostile world.

  • Whatever the outcome it’s likely we will be worse off as a nation than we were as members.

  • John Marriott 9th May '18 - 10:01pm

    Whilst not wishing to pontificate on the rights and wrongs of the Brexit debate, what interests me more is the relationship between the citizens of this country and their Parliament. I wonder if Simon De Montfort were alive today he would approve of what is going on.

    The irony of ‘Taking back control’ is that this control must surely rest with those people we elect to represent us and not with the people as a whole. Members of Parliament, like Councillors in Local Government, are not delegates and so are allowed to exercise their choice regardless of the views expressed, for example, in exercises of public opinion such as referenda. Votes on issues such as Capital Punishment, for example, have illustrated how popular opinion may not be reflected in decisions taken where laws are made.

    Those who expect all their MPs necessarily to reflect the rather crude binary decision taken nearly two years ago will be disappointed. Their only recourse will be not to give them their support the next time they ask for it.

    As far as the House of Lords is concerned, in its current form it is hard to say who it actually represents. It clearly needs reform, some say even possibly abolition. In my opinion bicameralism is still superior to unicameralism, because it allows the opportunity to revise legislation and offers the checks and balances needed in a representative democracy.

    Unfortunately such is the disconnect between large swathes of the population and our democratic institutions that the value, indeed, necessity of parliamentary scrutiny is not appreciated and indeed is possibly viewed as a means of delaying the implementation of a decision taken by popular vote or, worse still, of reversing it.

    It all proves what a crude exercise in opinion seeking a referendum can be if not handled properly and what a mess Cameron’s gamble left us with!

  • paul holmes 9th May '18 - 10:54pm

    @Michael Berridge. So your definition of a ‘Crisis of democracy’ is when elected representatives take note of the people who elect them!
    @David Raw. All absolutely true but even so the Commons in 1910 was still 100% more democratic than the wholly undemocratic Lords. Just as it is today.
    It was even 100% more democratic than the Lords before the 1832 Reform Act when only 2% (wealthy landowning men) could vote or after the Act when the electorate was increased to a ‘massive’ 5% (all men).

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 9th May '18 - 11:16pm

    @TonyGreaves: If you read the article, you will see that I have said on several different occasions that Lib Dem Lords are doing the right thing.

    The Lords have done excellent work to get to this stag but it may be all for nothing if Labour and CBs cave at the first opportunity. I don’t expect us to cave.

  • Martin Walker 10th May '18 - 7:58am

    I agree with the sentiment of the article and there is plenty of precedent (eg the Housing Act) which shows that this scenario is exactly what will happen. The upside for us (though I’d rather stop Brexit) is that this will expose what a pro-Brexit Party the Labour Party, under its current leadership, now is.

  • I am with Tony Greaves it really is about time that LibDem Central Office started telling the nation what a fantastic rearguard action LibDem Peers are mounting, and explaining its huge relevance to the final outcome

    Plus this also puts the HoL in the spotlight, raises the question of how it’s members are appointed and so increase the groundswell for reform, which happens to be a LibDem policy…

  • @Paul Holmes – There is a fundamental difference between Parliament taking “note of the people who elect them” and Parliament feeling itself obligated to act “under instruction” from the people who elected them. Parliament must be free to raise taxes/cut services – measures which are never popular with the people – as and when such measures are necessary, rather than feeling obligated to wait until we have a Greek-style financial disaster before acting. A Parliament which must do what is popular, rather than what is necessary, would be a pointless institution.

  • Caron’s, “but does it matter?” struck me when I read that “Leave.EU fined £70,000 over breaches of electoral law”…

    That is the sort of penalty a professional footballer receives for missing a training session; not the penalty that should be imposed for misleading a country…
    The penalty shows that, in answer to your question, it doesn’t matter!

  • PaulR. I’m well aware of that. I spent 9 years in Parliament considering precisely such ‘philosophical’ matters whenever controversial matters came up for votes.

    I however think it is truly astonishing that someone can see MP’s taking note of their electorates concerns as a ‘Crisis of Democracy.’ And that’s before we get into debate about Direct Democracy such as a clear cut Leave/Remain Referendum as opposed to Representative Democracy where politicians are elected on Manifestos containing a large package of numerous policies with numerous nuances.

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