The Conservative government’s Brexit plans have just been dealt a huge blow, courtesy of the House of Lords. The Lords voted to amend the Brexit Bill in order to force the Government to guarantee the rights of EU citizens living in the UK; with the vote being 358 to 256. This defeat comes in the wake of Lord Heseltine’s announcement that he will defy the government’s wishes, agreeing to side with Labour and Liberal Democrats peers to change the Brexit bill.
Despite the defeat, Theresa May has insisted that her “Brexit timetable” will not be disrupted and that the country is still on course for triggering Article 50 by the end of March. This is the first parliamentary defeat over the bill however, Downing Street is confident that the Commons will reject the amendment and that there will be no delay to the UK’s departure plans. In fact, a recent poll conducted by ICM has found that 68% of the public want the government to get on with the Brexit process. Jeremy Corbyn, who ordered a three-line whip on his party last month, has hailed the result as “great news” – which adds to the speculation if he will now order his MPs to back the amendment. The newly amended bill is expected to return to the commons on March 13th and March 14th, where MPs will decide whether to take the Lords’ scrutiny on-board or reject the changes completely.
There are 3 million EU nationals living in the UK whilst there are 900,000 Brits living in EU member states. This has been a personal concern for May who wants a guarantee on British migrants before she offers reciprocal rights over to the EU nationals. Both the EU and Downing Street have been criticised for potentially “playing with people’s lives” and using them as “bargaining chips” once negotiations begin. In October 2016, Theresa May announced that she wishes to trigger Article 50 by the end of March; however, some level of clarity over EU nationals is required before this. Since the Brexit result, the uncertainty of Britain’s future has led the British Pound to suffer. The Pound is falling against both the Euro and US Dollar despite this the FTSE 100 closed on March 1st at a new record high. In addition, billionaire Sir James Dyson has dismissed his Brexit fears by announcing a new £2.5bn investment plan which is expected to create 14,000 new jobs. Triggering Article 50 is the most important moment thus far in the Brexit process, political commentators awaiting any potential hiccups that may unfold.
However, the Lords’ recent actions have reawakened an old argument – does the House of Lords have any legitimacy? The fact that the Brexit bill initially passed through the Commons so easily has raised the issue and brought it back to the forefront of British domestic politics. Lord Lamont, the former Tory chancellor, has accused the Lords of “playing with fire”. Furthermore, Sir Bill Cash (the chairman of the European Union scrutiny committee) said “it is outrageous that these unelected people should undermine the vote in the House of Commons and the rights of British voters who live abroad.”
In 1999, Tony Blair’s New Labour government removed most hereditary peers bringing more legitimacy and efficiency to the chamber. However, many were left unsatisfied with Blair’s changes and led some to question the validity of the UK as a democracy. The main driving force behind this argument is that an unelected second chamber is scrutinising bills, which have already passed a democratically elected chamber, which is controversial. Though others argue that the Lords bring high levels of expertise and that they are better equipped than MPs when it comes to particular issues. The element of tradition and the fact that their work is very important are all reasons to why the Lords are vital to modern British society. On the issue of Brexit however, given there was such a clear mandate by the House of Commons, the Lords’ actions have been called into question.
Hard Brexit, Soft Brexit, Red White & Blue Brexit – these terms have been polluting the political air ever since the result of the referendum was announced back in June 2016. When Theresa May gave her speech at Lancaster House in January this year, it became clearer that the Conservative government was leading a hard Brexit. This included withdrawal from the single market, taking back control of our own immigration policy and the issue of the customs union on which she said; “membership of the customs union prevents us from negotiating our own trade deals”. Many of course questioned the direction that the Conservative government was taking; most notably the Liberal Democrats, John Major and the previously mentioned Tony Blair. Whilst, on the other end of the spectrum, the official Vote Leave Campaigners (Douglas Carswell, Boris Johnson, Matthew Elliot etc.) were all very pleased with the Prime Minister’s words that day, highlighting the divisiveness of Brexit. The underlining point of May’s speech was that the government would trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty by the end of March.
It is still early days in the Brexit process, in fact negotiations have not even begun, however the recent actions of the Lords have drastically changed the Brexit landscape. The government was able to pass the bill with a majority of 372 in the House of Commons back in early February, therefore the Lords’ actions have raised several questions – how democratic is Britain? Will the government stick to its current Brexit timetable? Finally and most importantly, has the UK exposed itself of being a divided country weeks before heading towards the negotiating table?
As you can see, the Lords have already caused a level of controversy in an already controversial issue. However, what we can be certain of is that the Brexit process is to be a long one with many bumps along the way.
Kyle Scott Pirie is a student at the University of Nottingham studying for a bachelor’s degree in Politics and International Relations. Kyle has a strong passion for politics, which has seen him campaign in both the Scottish independence referendum and EU referendum. He has also featured on multiple BBC programmes and has lived a life that has taken him across eight different countries. Find him on Twitter: @Pirie_8