A few days ago I explained why all this fuss about the House of Lords trying to overrule the elected House was a storm in a teacup. It wasn’t that I went along with their Lordships’ amendments to the Article 50 bill. I thought them wholly unnecessary and slightly tiresome. But I was absolutely confident that the Lords would give way to the Commons. And I was right.
To be frank, I wouldn’t have thought it the end of the world if the amendment on the rights of EU citizens living in the UK had been passed. It seems to me to be as plain as night follows day that we will honour those rights, whatever the rest of the EU decides to do about UK citizens living on the continent. Politicians who try to frighten EU nationals living here into thinking they might be thrown out are just being mischievous. It will never happen. But that, of course, was why the amendment was unnecessary, though its passing would not have changed the negotiations in the slightest (the EU knows we are determined to allow EU citizens living here to be allowed to remain).
The other amendment, the “meaningful vote” in both Houses, suffered, strangely, as it was drafted by Lord Pannick QC, from being very badly worded (I refer to sub-clause 4). Lord Hope of Craighead (former Law Lord and Deputy President of the Supreme Court) did his best to explain to Lord Pannick why his sub-clause 4 was a non-starter. But Pannick paid no heed and off it went to the Commons, where Sir Oliver Letwin explained with brutal clarity why it was a nonsense.
Anyway, the Commons, with increased majorities, rejected both amendments. Back went the Bill to the Lords. I have just watched the brief debate there. It went entirely along the lines I had predicted. The Labour Party (which is uncontaminated in the Lords by the dreaded Corbyn) behaved entirely properly. They regretted that the Commons had not supported the amendments, but recognised that “the other place” would not back down. Keeping “ping-pong” going all night (making the Bill go backwards and forwards between Lords and Commons endlessly) would be pointless. If the Lords didn’t eventually give way there would be a major constitutional crisis. The elected chamber had to get its way. To his credit, Lord Pannick took the same line.
But the Liberal “Democrats” were not going to play ball. They have decided that the only way they can recover in the next general election is by being seen as the Party which rejects the referendum result. No opportunity can be missed for using their ludicrous over-representation in the House of Lords to make the point that they represent the 48% who voted to remain. They forced the House to divide.Of course, they knew that their little demonstration was a waste of time. They knew the amendments would be rejected. But they wanted it on record that they had done their best to stymie the referendum.
One of the best things about watching debates in the Lords is seeing people one had quite forgotten about (or assumed had died years ago). Tonight’s star, undoubtedly, was Lord Taverne (do you remember Dick Taverne?). He made an impassioned speech explaining why Parliamentarians who supported the “will of the people” were just like Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini. Democracy, he assured the House, required the rejection of popular opinion, and therefore only his party was truly democratic. It was a glorious performance, though I got the impression that one or two of the more intelligent Lib Dems were a little embarrassed by it.
The Lords behaved sensibly tonight. I don’t resile from my belief that it is not healthy to have an upper chamber which, despite the way it voted today, is made up almost entirely of men and women who were appointed because they supported the opinions of Blair, Brown, Cameron and Clegg on Europe. But, so long as they continue to respect constitutional convention, I don’t think they are wholly bad.