Could the House of Lords block Brexit? It is becoming pretty obvious that MPs are blinking in their showdown with the electorate.
For instance Ed Miliband: “We had a referendum and we’ve got to respect the result. We are leaving the EU.”
Previously he had fudged on whether or not MPs should vote for triggering Article 50 – which is needed for withdrawal from the EU to take place. Now he says he will support it – perhaps mindful that 69% of his constituents in Doncaster North voted to leave the EU.
Leavers & Remainers should accept 2 facts: clear mandate for Brexit but no mandate for form of Brexit which is where Parliament comes in.
— Ed Miliband (@Ed_Miliband) November 6, 2016
Yet peers do not have to be constrained by such vulgar notions as accountability.
Furthermore, as a bastion of the Establishment, the House of Lords is dominated by Remainiacs.
Consider some of the vested interests of the members. Lord Mandelson will receive an EU pension of £31,000 a year when he turns 65. Just a couple of years to go. But a condition of the pension is that he maintains a “duty of loyalty” – otherwise it could be cancelled. The question of who will foot the bill for it could be among the more delicate points of the Brexit negotiations.
He’s not the only former EU Commissioner who will be able to give their verdict on the EU form the benches in the upper house. We have Lords Tugendhat, Richard, Clinton-Davis, Kinnock, Patten and Lady Ashton.
Then there are plenty of MEPs and former MEPs who are peers. Lord Balfe, for example, is Chairman of the European Parliament Members’ Pension Fund.
There is Lord Cashman (who used to be in EastEnders playing the role of Colin Russell), Lord Harrison, Lord Kirkhope. Lord Inglewood (Director, Full Fact – independent fact checking organisation), Lady Ludford, Lady Morgan, Lady Kinnock…
Then we have Lord Cooper who was the (wildly inaccurate) opinion pollster for the Stronger In campaign.
But most of the interests that peers have in the EU are more indirect. The EU’s tentacles spread far and wide. Charities and lobby groups. Trade unions and universities.
Part of the Remain campaign was to offer a series of supposedly independent and worthy third-party endorsements – that turned out to be bought and paid for as recipients of EU largesse. A free trip here, a consultancy there, a paid speaker engagement thrown in. The EU’s influence is insidious.
Then there are the big businesses that have done well out their efforts to lobby the EU.
Morgan Stanley were among those bankrolling the Remain campaign – Lord Darling is on their Board of Directors.
Usually when we talk of a “payroll vote” among politicians it is the advantage the Government has in being able to rely on ministers. But the European Union has a less formal, but nonetheless significant, payroll vote of its own.
In theory the House of Lords could prove an obstacle. Where a proposal has been included in a Governing party’s election manifesto the Salisbury Convention should apply – which says the Lords will not oppose the Second or Third Reading of a Bill.
The Conservative manifesto said: “We will negotiate a new settlement for Britain in the EU. And then we will ask the British people whether they want to stay in on this basis, or leave. We will honour the result of the referendum, whatever the outcome.”
Blocking Brexit would clearly not be respecting the verdict. But I suppose the Lords could ignore the Salisbury Convention.
The House of Lords press office tells me: “There is a final option of the Parliament Act if the House rejects a Bill and does not give way during Ping Pong. The Parliament Act would allow the Government to reintroduce the same Bill in the following session and the Lords could not reject it. This is used very rarely. The last time being the legislation that banned fox hunting with dogs in 2004.”
So that could be a serious delay. Of course the Government could create hundreds of new peers willing to vote to respect the referendum result.
They could keep the cost down by scrapping the £300 attendance fee – for both new and existing peers. That might concentrate a few minds.
My own hunch is that the Lords will not pursue such a suicidal and anti democratic course. But the strength of the EU’s clout in the upper house is certainly startling. In the words of Sam Cooke – and the Prime Minister’s Party conference speech – “A Change is Gonna Come.”