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8 March 2017

Tuesday saw more warfare in the House of Lords over our exit from the European Union

The government was handed their second major defeat in the House of Lords on Tuesday night, less than a week after the unelected upper chamber amended the landmark European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill to secure the rights of EU nationals residing in the UK. The chamber debated two major amendments to the Brexit Bill, rejecting one but accepting the second and deepening the conflict that will occur in the following session of “parliamentary ping pong” as the Commons and the Lords attempt to agree the wording of this major piece of legislation.

A second referendum

Among the issues discussed in the House of Lords on Tuesday was an amendment to secure a second EU referendum on the eventual deal won by the government after Article 50 negotiations. A second referendum has been a key talking point for Remoaners for months as they claim that the public could change its mind on Brexit and decide that it likes being dominated by foreign political institutions.

Labour’s Baroness Kennedy made an ill-advised intervention typical of those clamouring for a second vote, claiming that the government’s position was inconsistent. After outlining the government’s ambitious plan for negotiations, she asked: “if that is the position of confidence that the government has, why should they be in any doubt that a referendum would in fact give them an even greater majority in support of what they eventually resolve?”

Like others of her persuasion she failed to understand that the promise of a second referendum would destroy the government’s negotiating position, incentivising the European Union to give us a raw deal so the public would opt instead to remain shackled to the EU. Recognising this, peers from across the benches mocked Liberal Democrat leader Lord Newby for his belief that the EU would negotiate “in good faith”.

Opposition to the amendment came even from unexpected sources, such as the pro-EU Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby. He stressed that “another referendum will add to our divisions – it will deepen the bitterness, it is not democratic, it is unwise”. The amendment failed to pass to the dismay of Europhiles everywhere as 336 Lords outvoted a pathetic 131 Europhiles.

A parliamentary vote

But the major amendment discussed on Tuesday was one calling on the government to guarantee a “meaningful vote” for parliament at the end of the negotiation period – allowing them to accept or reject the deal won from the EU.

Lord Pannick supported the amendment but constantly stressed that he believed the House of Lords was “exceptionally unlikely to stand its ground against the view of the elected House”. The cowardly argument, if taken seriously, undermined the urgency of the amendment by rendering it practically meaningless.

Of course, the argument was disingenuous and those seeking the amendment would not have done so if they didn’t believe it presented a chance to stall EU withdrawal and perhaps derail it entirely. Baroness Deech exposed the fiction, asking if such sentiments would be repeated should the House of Commons reject the amendment during parliamentary ping pong.

The idea was slammed by former Tory leader Michael Howard, who claimed that the move would give the unelected House of Lords a “statutory veto” over the will of 17.4 million British voters. And even Pannick admitted that the amendment would give the Lords a chance to block Brexit. Having constantly asserted that the Lords would be practically bound to the decision of the Commons, he boasted that his motivation was “to ensure that parliament has a guaranteed opportunity at the end of the negotiating process to decide whether or not the terms of our withdrawal are acceptable or not” – confessing that he believes that he and fellow peers have the right to block our exit from the bloc.

Lord Forsyth spoke for the nation when he told Lord Pannick that “we know what he’s up to and we know what is going on here”. He went on to attack the amendment as “a clever lawyers’ confection in order to reverse the results of the referendum”.

Sadly for the public the amendment passed with a majority of 98, once more revealing the extent to which unelected Lords believe they have the right to defy the will of 17.4 million British voters – the biggest mandate in the history of British democracy. Surely it is time for a major constitutional rethink.