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The Lords have handed Theresa May her first Brexit bloody nose

Good on our old age provocateurs - Credit: Archant

The Peers should be heeded – most have been around for considerably longer than their friends in the Commons

Who says most of the old folk voted for Brexit? Michael Heseltine (84 this month) certainly didn’t, as he noisily made clear again at the weekend. Nor did his more reticent sparring partner and ex-deputy, John Major (74 this month). The former PM-but-four also weighed into the debate with a dire warning to Theresa May against the dangers of ‘cheap rhetoric’ over Europe, thereby enraging the witch-hunters of Fleet St and their rent-a-quote collection of backbench MPs, this at a time when they had only just finished abusing Heseltine and Tony Blair.

All of which was no more than a footnote to the marathon sittings of the House of Lords where more than half the peers are over 70 and just one under 40. Bus pass holders most may be (they do love their free bus ride), but they stayed up to almost midnight on two successive evenings last week to debate the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill. With 187 speakers on parade they narrowly beat the record previously held by the bill which abolished all but 92 hereditary places in 1999. We will come back to those hereditary survivors, for they help provide a small parliamentary perch for UKIP which Paul Nuttall’s welcome defeat in Stoke’s by-election did not.

This week peers resumed their marathon sessions on a series of mostly doomed amendments. Their victory over the Government on the rights of EU citizens to remain will, ultimately, fall on deaf ears.

Those in the Upper House are easily mocked, as they were on BBC2’s Meet the Lords documentary on Monday night, mockery amplified with cruel ‘care home’ glee by the tabloid pack, some of whose proprietors (Rupert Murdoch is 86 this month) are themselves in need of constant care and kindness. Survivors into great old age are often not short of ego. But it is also true, by dint of age and experience, that their Lordships know a lot and no longer fear to speak their minds, which are often in much better shape than their knees.

So it was – not for the first time either in recent decades – for anyone who compared the Commons second reading debate on Article 50 with that at the other end of the Palace of Westminster. Tidying up badly drafted and ill-considered Commons bills is mostly what the House of Lords does now when not producing detailed committee reports on wonky government policies. Brexit has already spawned a dozen or so. The Lords European Union Committee, chaired by Lord Boswell of Aynho, has 73 members and (amazing!) 25 full-time staff. It works hard.

No surprise there. Back in 1990, when Margaret Thatcher insisted against advice on introducing a retrospectively-active War Crimes Bill to catch elderly Nazi escapees from justice, the Lords rejected it as folly. One Thatcherite peer, the economist, Peter Bauer, whose father was murdered by the Nazis, opposed what he saw as improper legislation in a 31 word speech which ended: ‘This bill is another step towards the erosion of the rule of law.’ A colleague protested that the average age of current MPs when war broke out in 1939 had been six. Guilty perhaps that she had avoided war service in 1943, Thatcher overrode the peers veto. A single SS guard (aged 78) was later convicted and died in prison.

No peer during the Article 50 debates has cited the average age of the current crop of MPs, those who voted overwhelmingly for David Cameron’s 2011 referendums act and for Theresa May’s Brexit bill last month – even though many strongly disapproved of both.

But they could legitimately have done so. The average age of MPs elected in 2015 is 50, so most were too young to have cast a vote in Britain’s last European referendum in 1975. If few of the class of 1990 had fought in either world war – as many ageing peers had done – few in the class of 2015 have previously voted on Europe, as the peace process it still was for millions in 1975. It fell to journalist/historian, Lord (Peter) Hennessy, to provide grander context: Brexit will be Britain’s fourth major post-war turning point: decolonisation (1947 onwards); joining the common market (1973); the end of the Cold War (1989); now this leap in the dark.

I’d have inserted the traumatic debacle at Suez (1956) into that list, but I’m older than Hennessy (70 this month), older than May (born 1956) too. Disappointing, but little wonder mentions of defence and security were virtually non-existent in her Brexit strategy speech at Lancaster House on January 17, let alone in the perfunctory white paper hastily published after the Supreme Court’s Gina Miller ruling forced the parliamentary votes. Peers take the long view, they notice these things. In the rush to elevate border control and escape from the European Court of Justice above economic factors in Brexit, ministers have managed to jeopardise security cooperation against terrorism, ex-Met chief Lord (Ian) Blair, pointed out. There is no fall-back position equivalent to World Trade Organisation (WTO) status for security, he told the debate.

What interested me, as it did when examining the Commons debate, is how good the speeches in support of Brexit were. In the Commons they tended to be stronger on free market romanticism and sovereignty than on the detailed road map out of Brussels. They also complained about ‘Remoaners’ (copyright R Murdoch) trying to ‘thwart the will of the people’ though there was little evidence of that in speeches. The same pattern is there in the Lords, though of a generally higher quality on both sides.

One crossbench hereditary peer, Lord Russell of Liverpool, put the paradox well when he recalled a chat with a pro-Leave pal in the North. The pair had agreed that ‘the political grandees who were most in favour of our leaving are probably intellectually and managerially the least competent to manage our way out of it. So basically those of us who did not want to leave are going to have to manage our way out’. In a week when UKIP’s past-and-future leader, Nigel Farage, back from dinner with President Trump, has been concentrating on expelling Douglas Carswell MP (reportedly for being unhelpful about his knighthood), it is harder than ever to disagree.

And, as Michael Gove reminded us all, the experts do tend to be on the former Remain side of the argument. They were in the Lords. Lord (Gus) O’Donnell is a former civil service head, Lord (John) Kerr is a former head of the FCO and author of Article 50, who insists it allows for a reverse Brexit, a disputed point the Supreme Court tactfully ducked. ‘What makes you think they’d let us back?’ several peers asked after Lib Dem leader, Lord Dick Newby, had called the white paper a mixture of ‘pious aspiration and complacent illusion’.

Brilliant Lord (David) Pannick, keen to amend the bill to give statutory underpinning to May’s promise of a parliamentary vote on the deal as well as the right to reject the ‘this deal or no deal’ format, was Gina Miller’s QC.

Lords Mandelson and (Ian) Lang, the latter much more conciliatory than the former, are both ex-trade secretaries who voted Remain. Along with ex-ministers, Lords David Hunt, Jonathan Hill (our man in Brussels until Brexit) and Francis Maude, Lord Lang was one of many Tory Remainers who is determined to be optimistic about the future, ‘those of us who fear the worst, but will work for the best,’ as Labour’s Lady Angela Smith put it in a conciliatory and well-judged contribution.

Among other experts in their field, Lord Hope is a retired Supreme Court judge, whose warning that Mrs May will need legislation to enact whatever deal she gets was widely noted. Lord Lisvane is a newly retired Clerk of the Commons, keen to speed up the process and (like many) concerned not to reveal too much of Whitehall’s negotiating positions to Michel Barnier’s EU team. His pedigree as grand as any Tory earl, Hyderabad-born entrepreneur and Cobra beer boss, Lord (Karan) Bilimoria, declared himself ‘ as much a Eurosceptic as any Brexiteer’ and cited the failures of the euro and of Schengen to prove it. But he liked Brexit to the sleepwalk into war in 1914 and joined the Blair/Major coalition saying voters are allowed to change their minds. After all Mrs May, Phil Hammond and Boris Johnson have all done so.

Other experts fretted about the fate of post EU science research, environmental regulation and health care (11% or 160,000 staff are EU born) or the fragile state of Northern Ireland. Bilimoria was not the first or last to point out that staying inside the single market was in the 2015 Conservative manifesto, a detail that gives critics of May’s public negotiating stance some leverage.

To leave the single market over borders and the customs union to escape the ECJ is surely folly, successive speakers protested. We can square several circles by staying inside the non-EU European Economic Area (EEA), insisted Lord (David) Owen whose Gang of Four team broke with Labour over Europe in 1981, but has since embraced the Brexit camp. That did not carry much weight. But the Brexiteers also scored some hits, the funniest being to remind peers – I had forgotten too – that the first party leader to call for an In/Out EU referendum was Nick Clegg in 2008. When he eventually got one and didn’t like the result, he asked for another, quipped Tory columnist, Lord Danny Finkelstein.

By my score substantial Brexit speeches came from former Tory chancellors, Nigel Lawson and Norman Lamont. Lord Lawson is a climate change sceptic and in above his head on the science. But you cannot dismiss an ex-chancellor, even one who has U-turned on so much. He was characteristically combative. No deal is better than a bad deal and the economy will not go over a cliff because ‘there is no cliff’. The minor disadvantages caused by WTO status will be outweighed by the fall in sterling, by the cull of regulations, especially for small business, and by the end to £10bn worth of EU contributions, set to rise sharply after the Thatcher rebate ends in 2020, he added.

Though he attacked Tony Blair’s ‘ideological’ Brexit comment (it is the European movement which is ‘almost a religion’), Lord Lamont was more emollient. The single market carries costs, yet six out of 10 of the EU’s top trade partners have no special trade relationship with it. Misplaced ‘bravado,’ said Lord Kerr who warned of serious economic consequences for isolated Britain, ‘the Bullingdon Boys will be just fine, the country may not be’.

Several Brexit peers were Remainers in 1975 and only switched sides in 2015 after the failure of David Cameron’s renegotiation. Others from all sides argued that a speedy resolution on is vital, leaving transitional and subsequent relations for later. Patience is needed, but also speed. This is a negotiation, not a diktat by either side, said Lord Hill. Mutual self-interest guides trade negotiations, often to last minute deals, said the optimists. No, this is a ‘highly political divorce settlement’ (Lord Lawson) which may break down (Lord Kerr). Some backbench peers reminded noisy frontbenchers that peers are polite to each other.

Pro EU Lib Dem, Lord Lester, was quite aggressive, but so was Brexit’s Lord (Michael) Forsyth and Lord Stevens of Ludgate (80), a Thatcherite Tory turned UKIP peer and former chairman of the Daily Express group. He talked mostly nonsense in his allotted six minutes, about wrongful arrests under the European Arrest Warrant (EAW), patent agreements, fishing policy ad the prospect of our all becoming ‘a free trade, low tax area’ if talks fail. The Bullingdon Boys (rich Lord Stevens is Stowe and Cambridge educated) will be just fine. I liked the crisp, no nonsense tone and optimism of Brexit’s Viscount Ridley, the science writer and author of The Rational Optimism. His Times columns are often a tonic and reproach to assorted gloomsters. He said the age of ‘top down centralism’ are over and proposed ‘Project Cheer.’ Lovely chap though he is, this rational optimist was also hereditary chairman of Northern Rock when it launched the bank crash in 2007.

But UKIP’s Lord Willoughby de Broke (78), the 21st baron of that name and another Tory to Ukip switcher, was pretty hopeless in several ways. He ruefully recalled that his efforts to get a referendum on Maastrict (1991) were thwarted by then-chief whip, the race driver. Lord Hesketh, who has since gone over to Ukip too. He did not add that the jovial Hesketh also sold his ancient and lovely family seat at Easton Neston in Towcester to a Russian fashionista and decamped with the proceeds to the south of France. Very Brexit.

Lord Willoughby seems to think that black Americans only got the vote in 1965. Lord Howard Flight thinks the EU was gradually eroding 1,000 years of evolving British democracy. It is all more complicated than that. But you get the picture. Blue Labour’s Lord Maurice Glasman believes the ‘joyous’ Brexit moment will give birth to democratic renewal in Britain. His colleague Dale Campbell-Savours hopes the EU may take the opportunity to renew itself too. Plenty of decent people, peers among them, voted for Brexit. But my calculation says that only 28 of the 187 Lords who spoke (plus a few shy Brexits) were Leavers and most were on the woolly and romantic side. ‘It will be all right on the night,’ they tell each other.

Let us hope they are right because all sorts of dangers are paved with good intentions. Heseltine’s detractors this week were keen to blame him for Lady Thatcher’s fall. That is not correct. Longevity and her failing touch destroyed her, as embodied in the foolish poll tax, Thatcherism’s gift to the SNP. Among its eager promoters was young Mickey Forsyth, now a big cheese in the City. He ought to ponder that, but he probably won’t. Not the type.

Michael White is a former political editor of the Guardian

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