Ever since Brexit began, the House of Lords has been rejecting the government’s plans for departure. From voting down the Article 50 bill last March, urging ministers to guarantee EU citizens’ right to stay after Brexit, to last night’s vote to stay in the single market, the peers have become the new darlings of the liberal left.
More than 100 peers rebelled against their parties last night to pass an amendment to the EU Withdrawal Bill that would keep Britain in the single market. The government has now lost 14 votes in the Lords on the EU Withdrawal Bill, including on subjects like participating in a customs union, limiting ministerial powers in incorporating EU law into UK law, a meaningful vote and the transition period.
While Remainers rejoice, what does this really mean for Brexit? Not much, I’m afraid. While the House of Lords is doing its job, scrutinising legislation, and sending it back to the Commons, it’s not blocking it. It’s simply asking MPs to look again. To make sure. Is this really in the national interest? Could you make it better?
What it’s not doing is rejecting the legislation with the view of defeating the Bill when it comes back for its second and third readings. This is because the House of Lords defers to the electoral mandate of those voting through legislation in the Commons. If there’s a majority view among MPs that we shouldn’t stay in the single market, the Lords isn’t going to force the issue.
The Institute for Government’s Director of Research and parliamentary expert Dr Hannah White told me last year that the Lords will only go in for “one round of ping-pong” on these amendments – aware that it doesn’t have the legitimacy to destroy the Bill by repeatedly sending it back.
Unless there’s an obvious shift in opinion in the country and the Commons, the Lords will not be unravelling Brexit, according to Professor Meg Russell, Director of UCL’s Constitution Unit. She told me recently that, “the House of Lords can’t block anything here… If the MPs don’t support the Lords’ position, the Lords will back down.”
But there is still some hope for Brexitsceptics. With Labour pushing for membership of a customs union with the EU, and a meaningful vote for MPs on the deal (one where the alternative wouldn’t be “crashing out”), this makes a Commons majority possible for those particular Lords amendments – there could be enough Tory MP rebels to pass them, and prevent a harder Brexit.