Now that the government’s Article 50 Bill has passed in the Commons without amendment, it goes along the corridor to the House of Lords which will give it a second reading on 20/21 February. A number of Brexiters have shifted from heavy breathing to frothing at the mouth at the prospect that the Lords might reject or amend the Bill. An unnamed government source is quoted in The Times as saying “if the Lords think they can play God, then the public will call for them to be abolished”.
A bit over the top you might think; but no doubt it has been a stressful week in the Commons. The best advice to them is to calm down.
There has never, since June 23rd, been the slightest chance that the Lords would throw out a bill authorising the government to trigger Article 50. If the government had not taken us all on a long and fruitless meander through the thickets of the royal prerogative and the Supreme Court, it could have had the green light from Parliament long ago.
In any case the Lords do not, as a general rule, reject government bills; they scrutinise them and, if there is a majority for that, they ask the Commons to think again on specific and limited amendments. Since every government bill that reaches the Lords from the Commons has, by definition, been approved by the elected house, to deny the possibility of amendment in the Lords would amount to abolishing the Lords here and now.
So what sort of amendments will be discussed when the Committee and Report stages are taken at the end of this month? There may be attempts to call for a second referendum or to tie the government’s hands in the negotiations which are about to begin. It is doubtful if this sort of amendment will get very far.
There will also be more important amendments dealing with process: to require the government to report regularly to parliament; to ensure that, if and when a deal is struck with the EU on either the divorce settlement or the new partnership, or when a decision is taken to break off negotiations, it is submitted to both Houses for approval, in a timely and meaningful fashion and at least as soon as it is submitted to the European Parliament; to insist that the government reassure EU citizens already living and working here that their right to do so will not be revoked.
Would any of these amendments be unreasonable? Surely not. Nor would any of them be justifiably described as wrecking amendments. Would any of them prevent the triggering of Article 50 by the end of March as the government wishes? Certainly not.
If we are to get through the next two years or more without inflicting even more damage on ourselves than is already being done by the original decision to leave the EU, there really is a need for calm and civility in the national discourse around the whole Brexit issue. Otherwise bad decisions will be taken and we will use up more energy negotiating with ourselves than in negotiating with our 27 EU partners.
Edited by Bill Emmott