So after all the hullabaloo in the Commons – all noise and no action – a still pristine Article 50 bill moves to the House of Lords. And it comes with intimidation. The upper House is threatened with abolition should it dare mess with the Prime Minister’s version of Brexit.
For Liberal Democrats this is, perhaps, not so much a disincentive to be difficult rather a positive call to action. Perhaps the Conservatives now regret not backing our moves in Coalition to reform our Second Chamber.
As the only party solidly pro-Europe, Lib Dem peers are now handling an avalanche of support, letters and emails from the 48% that the Prime Minister is trying to assign to history. So with the strength of our numbers, and the backing of those outside not attracted by the hardest of Brexits, we approach the Article 50 bill with a determination to call the Government to account, to scrutinise and improve the bill. That is what the House of Lords is for, and as Lib Dems that is our ambition for this bill as much as any other.
No, we will not be throwing the bill out at a second reading vote. Such votes are very rare in the Lords. But, it only requires one of the maverick – and there are more than a few in the House – Lordships to persistently chant ‘not content’ at the end of the long, 140 plus speaker, second reading debate for a vote to be forced. And then? Well consciences, heart, and long held beliefs might just take over from expediency in this strongly ‘remain’ chamber.
But more likely, we are heading for an intensive committee stage where Lib Dems will be focused on making this meagre 133-word bill fit for purpose
For us there are two top tasks. Number one, that the public rather than just our prime minister, the Government, or even Parliament is given the final say on the deal reached under the tight two year Brexit timetable this bill triggers. There is a need for symmetry. We want a referendum at both ends of this lengthy tussle over the nation’s future. What did the 52% vote for in terms of Brexit – hard, soft, red white and blue; who knows? So let the 100% give their final verdict.
The second is a core ethical issue. The many EU citizens living and working in the UK, contributing to our economy, paying taxes, supporting many of our vital sectors, must not be a bargaining chip. That uncertainty, for them and their families, must be removed now. What better place to do it than in this bill, in primary legislation.
The House of Lords may be in no mood to threaten the bill as a whole; but the chances of amendment is strong. The performance of the Commons has been worse than disappointing. MPs appear to have given up. Perhaps in contrast the Lords will rise to Parliament’s responsibility, and maybe we will be further ‘reformed’ as a result. The next few weeks could decide the long term future of many millions of people, we have to make it count.
Lord Teverson is a Liberal Democrat peer and Brexit Spokesperson for Devon and Cornwall