ANDREW ADONIS: Traitors? No, the Lords are the voice of reason on Brexit
PUBLISHED: 12:01 27 April 2018
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ANDREW ADONIS on the benefits of the House of Lords post-Brexit, and the individuals making a beeline for the ermine and crimson.
Until I took a lead in opposing Brexit, I had never been called an enemy of the people or a traitor. Nor had I been invited to choose between hanging, the guillotine and a firing squad, as now often happens on Twitter.
So being attacked for voting for a customs union in a House of Lords which Jacob Rees-Mogg says is ripe for ‘burning down’ is positively tame.
Particularly when Rees-Mogg is the chief arsonist.
For a moment I thought Jacob had changed his tune. Among those voting in the huge majority of 123 for a customs union last week was one ‘Lord Mogg’. But the appreciative subscription to The New European I was about to send to Jacob was premature. It turned out the Mogg in question is, wait for it, an ex-European Commission official who inherited an hereditary peerage! Twitter is already on to him about his Euro pension, although I suspect it is less substantial than Nigel Farage’s £73,000 a year.
The Lords has nothing to fear from doing it’s job, but everything to fear from staying silent on the biggest issue of the day, where a revising second chamber has crucial constitutional duties to perform.
The job of the Lords in our parliamentary system, whose sovereignty we are supposed to be celebrating in Brexit, is to improve legislation and to ask the elected House of Commons to think again on big issues where, by virtue of its expertise and independence, it has concerns on behalf of the people. This is a particularly necessary and significant role when a government lacks a majority in the Commons and therefore its mandate is weak and the view of the House of Commons uncertain and unstable.
This is codified in the so-called Salisbury convention, which says that a government which has won an election, and has a majority in the Commons, is entitled to get its manifesto proposals through the Lords intact.
Simply stating this convention shows why the Lords is right to be making a stand on aspects of Brexit. Because the Salisbury convention clearly does not apply in the present crisis. Theresa May didn’t win an election and hasn’t got a majority. Indeed, that is the very reason why Brexit has become so contested since last June.
Had ‘strong and stable’ May been returned at the polls with the majority she sought by calling an early election, this whole debate would be over. But she wasn’t.
Moreover, the Lords isn’t actually opposing Brexit. We might have a constitutional position to do so, but we aren’t, mindful of the fact that the government is the government, and there isn’t an anti-Brexit government which can be formed out of the present ‘hung parliament’ – oh dear, simply writing those words may give my Twitter critics new ideas.
No, what the Lords is doing is asking the Commons to think again about subsidiary issues which need to be got right if Brexit is going to work at all. A customs union is obviously the biggest of these, and we will move on in the coming weeks to the Good Friday Agreement and the single market.
It is essential, on the government’s own admission, that nothing unsettles Ireland or impedes trade, which should, in May’s words be ‘as frictionless as possible’ after Brexit. So, far from undermining the ‘instruction of the people’ of June 23, 2016, we are obeying the ‘instruction of the government’ that ‘Brexit means Brexit’.
The fact that there may indeed be a majority in the House of Commons for a customs union completely vindicates the Lords in asking MPs to consider this issue.
We can hardly be thwarting a Commons which we have good reason to believe may agree with us – and there is only one way to find out!
The genuinely thorny issue, within the politics and constitutional conventions of the situation, is the issue of the ‘people’s vote’ – whether there should be a referendum on May’s treaty, giving the people a chance to reject it and stay in the EU, which I believe is now the right course for the country. The Lords considers this issue on Monday.
It is hard to criticise the Lords as anti-democratic when the effect of its actions would be more democracy. However, there is a compelling argument that it is MPs, not peers, who should decide on the extension of democracy even in extremis. And so our proposed motion says, which would require the Commons to vote on a referendum when the Withdrawal Treaty is presented. It does not require there to be a referendum per se. And anyway, even this provision would only take effect if the Commons votes for it in the first place once it returns from the Lords.
The truth is that it’s not the constitution or democracy which is at stake – but whether Farage, Rees-Mogg, Gove and Johnson can rule by decree. By no interpretation was that the instruction of the British people either in June 2016 or in the subsequent general election.
We are beginning a big national debate on whether there should be a ‘people’s vote’ before irrevocably leaving the EU, and the Lords is rightly playing a part in that.
The most striking thing about the Lords debates so far is the fracturing of the Conservative Party. The customs union was proposed by former Tory party chairman Chris Patten and supported by about 50 Conservative peers who either voted with him or abstained. I have never witnessed so large a rebellion against a government in my 13 years in the Upper House. Hence the majority of 123.
Oh, and the ultimate irony. We all know that Jacob would like to end up in the Lords, like his Dad. Farage is clearly attracted to the ermine and crimson too. So I don’t think they will be setting fire to their desired retirement home any time soon.
No, what they want is for those of us there at the moment – or rather the non-ideological Brexiters – to self-immolate. But we aren’t planning on that. And in modern Britain, treason does not lie in standing up for the people and their rights. I’m not quitting – and I’m not Quisling.