We lost a battle but the war is going fine

PUBLISHED: 08:46 04 May 2018

The House of Lords. Photograph: Dan Kitwood/PA.

The House of Lords. Photograph: Dan Kitwood/PA.

PA Wire/PA Images

The tide is turning against the Brexit once more and there is reason for hope

The government has suffered ten defeats so far on the EU Withdrawal Bill in the House of Lords. The defeats on the European customs union and the requirement for a Commons vote if there is ‘no deal’ are of particular importance, because Theresa May probably lacks the numbers to reverse these in the Commons so will end up accepting them.

But before we open the champagne – sorry, pour the Earl Grey tea – I have to acknowledge that we were defeated on by far the most important proposal put before the Lords and the only one which could have scuppered Brexit entirely – namely, a ‘people’s vote’ on the final deal, as against staying in the EU.

This went down by 260 votes to 202, after an acrimonious debate in which one Tory hereditary peer who I have never seen in the Lords before – the 14th Lord Fairfax of Cameron – accused Remainers of being a “fifth column”.

Lord Fairfax’s ancestor was a prominent Parliamentarian in the English Civil War and he clearly believes we are still fighting it – and that he is now on the Royalist side. I’m not sure who he thinks is Oliver Cromwell – Alastair Campbell looks the part – but Rees-Mogg is a passable Charles I.

We lost the Battle of the People’s Vote for one reason only: an instruction that Labour peers should abstain, issued from what is mysteriously called ‘the leader’s office’. No one is quite sure who presides over this office. Is it Prince Seamus of the Thames, who bears such a striking resemblance to the Cavalier commander Prince Rupert of the Rhine? Much more likely, because it was a weak order to abstain rather than to attack, the author was Sir Vacillating Starmer, who kept advising Cromwell to negotiate a ‘meaningful vote’ with Charles I, while Lord Fairfax of Cameron was only interested in meaningful executions.

Anyway, while the bad news is that we were defeated, the good news is that if Sir Vacillating comes off the fence next time, we will win easily. In the vote in the Lords immediately before the one on the ‘people’s vote’, 144 Labour peers voted against the Government. On the ‘people’s vote’, 51 did so, against the whip to abstain. The 93 abstainers, had they gone into battle, would have given the people’s vote an easy victory.

Much more importantly, the same would be true in the House of Commons if Jeremy Corbyn leads the assault for a people’s vote, in league with Dominic Grieve and his renegades from the court of Theresa the Weak and Wobbly.

This is precisely the outcome we seek when May presents her Withdrawal Treaty in October. And this week’s events – in the Commons as much as the Lords – make it much more likely to come to pass, for three reasons.

First, you can abstain once on a great issue, but you can’t keep abstaining. Lady Hayter, Sir Vacillating’s spokesperson in the Lords, said she wasn’t necessarily against a people’s vote, but the time wasn’t ripe. Well, it is ripening fast and simply can’t be ducked when the Withdrawal Treaty is presented in October.

Secondly, the notion that Corbyn could give May a free pass in October is fanciful. How can he oppose the worst government in recent times – not just Brexit, but Windrush and austerity – and lose an opportunity to eviscerate it? Everyone knows that Corbyn wants an election, not a referendum. But as it becomes known that Grieve takes the opposite view, and has the swing votes, that is what will ultimately count.

Thirdly, it is increasingly clear that chaos and confusion will be the state of play by the autumn. The Irish border, the customs union, the framework for beyond the 21 month ‘implementation period’: all are highly problematic.

The Prime Minister may be able to fudge and mudge around some of this – ‘a’ customs union rather than ‘the’ customs union, etc. But the Irish border and the commitment to ‘full regulatory alignment’ between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland are non-fudgeable and the Irish and the EU – as indicated by Michel Barnier’s visit to Ireland this week – are preparing to dig in. I have long regarded Ireland as the Achilles heel of Brexit. It is going gangrenous.

Moreover, the Lords aren’t finished yet. Where Labour has been united, we have been carrying anti-Brexit measures against the government with majorities of over a hundred, supported by many Conservative peers. And the Lords in effect have a veto because the government has no majority in the Commons 
and can’t use the Parliament Act to override the Lords as it can’t accept any delay.

The argument against the House of Lords exercising its power is that ‘the people have spoken’. But should the Commons – at the behest of Jeremy the Magnificent, in shining armour – rally behind the people’s vote, it becomes not ‘peers versus people’ but ‘Parliament versus Charles I’.

We’ve seen that film before and know how it ends.

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