After the opening salvos over the Brexit bill in the House of Lords, the Lib Dem leader there, DICK NEWBY, looks ahead to the next round of battles
Of the 190 speeches made during the Withdrawal Bill Second Reading in the Lords, three stood out for me.
The first, was an excoriating critique of the indecisiveness of the government by former Brexit Minister Lords Bridges. He pointed out that ‘To govern is to choose’. He bemoaned their failure of the government to do so on the key issues of our future relationship with the EU.
The second, from former Cabinet Secretary Gus O’Donnell, was a forensic dissection of the government’s failure to spell out its policies.
He said that he had ‘absolutely no idea’ how the government could have frictionless trade across the Northern Ireland border unless in the single market and customs union.
And the third from the splendidly bewhiskered Lord Lisvane, former Clerk to the Commons, drawing the analogy of three timorous maiden aunts who, having voted to go to the cinema, discovered that the only films on offer were Reservoir Dogs or The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Should they not, he mused, be allowed to reconsider their decision?
What these speeches, and the vast bulk of the others, demonstrated was the overwhelming sense of unease about the government’s Brexit strategy.
There were many valid criticisms of the Bill itself.
The vast extension of ministerial powers, including Henry VIII powers. The disapplication of the Fundamental Charter of Human Rights. The side-lining of the devolved parliament and assemblies.
Major amendments are needed in all these areas, and over a dozen amendments have now been submitted, supported by senior members of the Lib Dem, Labour, Conservative and Crossbench groups. All these amendments – if not forestalled by government amendments – will be voted on and will lead to government defeats.
This is vital if the Brexit process is not to be the cover for a major and permanent power grab by ministers from parliament. And a reduction, not increase, in parliamentary sovereignty.
But speakers kept coming back to the most important question of the Brexit process.
If any Brexit deal is reached, how is it to be either ratified or rejected? There was broad agreement that parliament must have the chance to vote on any deal – or no deal.
And that it must have the option to reject any deal in favour of the status quo. But even amongst the many peers who heartily dislike referenda, there was a new recognition that parliament would not be able to reject a deal and have the final say. In these circumstances the people would have to be consulted again in a further referendum.
Lib Dems will therefore be proposing an amendment to provide for such a referendum. It will be co-sponsored by members from across the House and it will gain votes from members of every party and group. But its success depends on the Labour front bench.
As long as they refuse to support it, we will struggle to win. If they were to do so, we would win. It is not just the government which has choices to make.
The Bill starts its Committee Stage on February 21 and we will have the key votes at Report between Easter and the early May local elections.
Ping pong will then begin and the Commons will have to decide whether to accept amendments made in the Lords. Although the Lords accepts that the Commons has the final say, we do not have to concede without a struggle – and there have been up to seven rounds of ping pong in the past.
Lib Dems are not minded to give ground easily. I hope that others will be equally resolute.
Lord Dick Newby is the leader of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords