Marking the government’s seventh defeat on Brexit in the House of Lords, the Daily Mail ran one of its infamous hit-job front pages. “HOUSE OF UNELECTED WRECKERS”, it screamed this morning, following a cross-party amendment to the EU Withdrawal Bill that would allow MPs a “meaningful vote” on the Brexit deal.
— Neil Henderson (@hendopolis) April 30, 2018
Plastered above pictures of three peers who spoke against Brexit is the Mail’s claim that “the Remainer elite – in cahoots with Brussels – is fighting a guerrilla war against Brexit using any weapon it can”.
The current “weapon” of choice used by those pesky liberals? An upper chamber of unelected figures, often seen wearing mink, which has been repeatedly defended from reform or abolition by… the Tory right.
The Mail is not alone. The Sun argues the unelected peers have become “a cancer eating away at our democracy”. The International Trade Secretary Liam Fox was on the radio this morning warning the upper chamber not to “thwart the view of the British people”.
Yes, it turns out the archaic institution championed by provocative right-wingers and stalwart traditionalists through the decades is the very same body repeatedly scuppering the government’s plan to force through a hard Brexit.
(The irony is lessened in Fox’s case, as – against the grain of his party – he has long favoured House of Lords reform.)
The House of Lords is riling up Brexiteers who have voted to protect it in the past, including Jacob Rees-Mogg. The ardent Brexiteer has voted consistently against a wholly elected House of Lords, and consistently against removing its hereditary peers. He seems to have changed his tune today, asking “what about democracy?”, and using the hashtag “PeersagainstthePeople”.
Ever since the Lords voted down the government’s Article 50 bill last March – urging ministers to guarantee EU nationals’ right to stay in the UK after Brexit – it has appeared to fight the corner of those who want a softer Brexit, and to take the final deal out of Theresa May and her ministers’ hands.
But the Lords hasn’t only been challenging the right on Europe. During the Housing Bill in 2016, it watered down a Tory policy prioritising earners who can buy “affordable” homes over those in need of social housing. And with the Dubs amendment to the Immigration Act that same year, it urged Britain to take in refugee children (which it did, but far fewer than hoped).
The left also cheered the House of Lords when it delayed the government on its proposal to cut tax credits in 2015, which led to former Chancellor George Osborne dropping the policy. (This even led to the Strathclyde Review into curbing the House of Lords’ powers, so infuriated were the Tories.)
“The House of Lords is giving the Conservative government a difficult time, and Conservative governments historically have not been used to that,” says Professor Meg Russell, Director of UCL’s Constitution Unit.
“Up until 1999, when most of the hereditary peers were swept away, the House of Lords had – for essentially the history of the modern party system – been dominated by the Conservatives.”
The Conservatives don’t currently have a majority in the Lords, with just 248 out of 794 seats (the rest are 197 Labour, 100 Lib Dems and 183 independent crossbenchers).
Professor Russell argues that up until 1999, the “big, set-piece rows” between the Lords and Commons had been under Liberal and left-wing governments, citing the extension of the franchise and ending of the rotten boroughs in the 19th century and David Lloyd George’s “People’s Budget” in 1909. The latter led to the Parliament Act, whereby legislation can pass without the Lords’ consent.
This pattern of course continued after 1999, because Labour was the party in power. The Lords battling the government – which it did particularly on counter-terror and civil liberties legislation – was entirely in keeping with its history of stand-offs with governments of the left. The Tory/Lib Dem coalition didn’t face as much gridlock from the Lords, because the Lib Dems were broadly voting through government policy.
It was only in 2015, when the Conservative government was ruling alone and the Lords did not have a Conservative majority, that it noticeably began causing trouble for Tory ministers.
“The tax credits argument showed was not essentially that the House of Lords had changed its behaviour, just that the House of Lords now more-or-less treats Conservatives and Labour governments equally,” says Professor Russell. “So in a sense, everything’s changed and nothing’s changed.”
This is difficult for the left to champion, however, considering the unelected status of the House of Lords, which includes party political appointees (party leaders nominate a certain number of people each year to represent their party in the Lords), and still hosts hereditary members who are there simply because of their birth.
Anyone who watched BBC Two’s documentary Meet the Lords last year will remember with horror the one elderly member crowing that joining the Lords is “like being back at school”, as he merrily uses the same clothes peg that his grandfather did.
As I wrote last year, the left has been struggling to reconcile this institution with the good things it does for public policy. For example, The Mirror quietly stopped plugging its 2015 campaign to scrap the House of Lords after that tax credits vote three years ago. The same paper has since described it as “an outdated, anarchic, unrepresentative institution we’d be lost without”.
The right-wing press’ hostility towards the House of Lords appears to be a new, Brexit-driven stance. “We’ve seen a bit of a transformation in attitudes to the Lords, where right-wing papers – to put it crudely – are much more inclined to take a critical stance to the Lords,” Professor Russell notes.
She recalls a “rather surprising alliance” in the media under New Labour of the conservative and liberal left papers, with the Guardian, Independent and Telegraph united in supporting the Lords’ challenge to what they saw as “illiberal policies” like ID cards, or restricting access to trial by jury.
Civil servants involved in the EU Withdrawal Bill have been anticipating a potential crunch moment, when the Lords could thwart the bill. The government is under pressure to agree a deal by October, leaving six months for parliamentary votes before the day Britain exits the EU in March 2019. The Lords sending the bill back could mean the UK runs out of time.
But claims the House of Lords will block Brexit are exaggerations. Convention and constitutional experts say it’s very unlikely the Lords would reject the bill in its entirety on the second and third reading. It wouldn’t seek to block Brexit unless there was a drastic change of mood in the Commons and the country. “The House of Lords can’t block anything here,” says Professor Russell. “If the MPs don’t support the Lords’ position, the Lords will back down.”
Our mink-clad mavericks may not remain the new liberal darlings for long.