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Expert View

Meanwhile, in the Lords…

by David Hannay | 15.01.2019

David Hannay is a member of the House of Lords and former UK ambassador to the EU and UN.

Last night the House of Lords voted by a stonking majority of 169 (321 votes to 152) for a motion stating that a no deal outcome to the Brexit negotiations must be emphatically rejected and regretting that the prime minister’s deal would damage the future economic prosperity, internal security and global influence of the UK. That majority contained substantial numbers of Conservative peers and crossbenchers as well as almost all Labour and Liberal Democrats. It was therefore a genuine cross-party expression of views.

How consequential will that vote be? It comes in good time for members of the House of Commons to be aware of it when they vote on the prime minister’s deal later today. But of course it does not have the force of law, nor was it ever intended to do so, as the wording of the motion made clear that the decisive say rested with the Commons.

But it is also a clear indication of the rocky road that lies ahead for the government as it seeks to pass in the ever-shrinking period before March 29 a whole raft of legislation – on trade, immigration, agriculture and fisheries and above all a bill giving effect in domestic law to all the provisions in the prime minister’s deal if, or any variant of it, ever passed in the Commons.

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Already there is an amendment down for the Trade Bill, which could resume its passage through the Lords as soon as next Monday (January 21) after a hiatus of four months. This amendment would ensure that the act’s provisions could not enter into force unless the Commons had either approved a deal or had approved exiting without a deal; that is to say it would not enter into force in the event of a default no deal exit.

There were plenty of references in the Lords debate to the possibility of another referendum on the outcome of the Brexit negotiations. That had its supporters, growing in number, and its detractors, many of them apocalyptic in their warnings. The issue was not referred to in the motion and there is no question of the Lords taking the lead on this. But it does show that, should a new referendum bill emerge from the Commons, it would not lack support in the Lords.

One other, fairly astonishing, feature of the debate was the lukewarm support for the prime minister’s deal even amongst those who voted against the motion. “Not perfect” and “lesser evil” could be said to characterise their contributions. With backing like that it is hardly surprising that the prime minister’s deal seems to be heading for defeat in the Commons later today.

Edited by Hugo Dixon