The House of Lords is a national embarrassment. Britain’s unelected second chamber – the largest in the world after China’s National People’s Congress – is stuffed with party placemen, dodgy donors and failed politicians. The 26 Church of England bishops make the UK the only state other than Iran to reserve seats for clerics in its legislature.
The last Labour government mercifully removed most of the hereditary peers from the Lords (though 92 remain) but no further reform has followed. In 2012, the coalition government’s attempt to introduce an 80 per cent elected chamber was defeated by Conservative rebels and title such as the Daily Mail.
Yet after the 14 Lords defeats inflicted on the government over Brexit legislation, demands for reform are emanating from an unlikely source: Tory MPs and the Daily Mail. The paper reports that Jacob Rees-Mogg, Iain Duncan Smith and Bernard Jenkin are among those denouncing “these traitors in ermine”.
The great irony of Brexit is how its advocates have turned on British institutions one by one: the judiciary, the civil service, the free press, the BBC and, now, the House of Lords.
Jenkin said of the upper house: “They have become drunk with their own prejudices in defiance of how the people voted in the referendum and the last general election.” Rees-Mogg warned: “It is not a loved institution, it is a tolerated institution when it obeys the constitutional norms, if it ignores them it has very little support left. They are completely obsessed by the European Union. They are people who have devoted their whole life to it. Their whole aim is to stop Brexit.”
Rather awkwardly, then, Rees-Mogg and Jenkin were among the 28 Brexiteer Tories who voted against Lords reform in 2012. Jenkin denounced the government’s plan to replace the “current effective, proven and appointed House with more elected politicians”.
In 2012, the Mail itself branded Lords reform “irrelevant and dangerous”, and the paper frequently heralded the defeats endured by Labour on issues such as fox hunting and Section 28. “The truth is this prime minister [Tony Blair] hates the robustly independent Lords which has proved a more effective check on an over-mighty executive than the Commons,” it declared in an editorial on 19 September 2003.
Lords reform is chronically overdue – and one should always welcome, rather than denounce, converts to the cause. But the Brexiteers’ demands for an elected chamber are entirely cynical. Rather than a more effective legislature, they merely hope for a more compliant one.
None of the 14 Lords amendments would, as claimed, “stop Brexit” and the elected Commons has the right to reject all of them. And though the Conservatives formed a government, their failure to win a majority means they have no mandate for policies such as single market withdrawal. There are innumerable reasons to reform the Lords – but Brexit is not one of them.