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Staying the hand of constitutional reform

After two days and twenty hours of intense discussion, the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill passed its first major hurdle in the House of Lords this week.

Despite the Bill representing the settled ‘will of the people’, its safe passage was not guaranteed. The Conservative party has historically enjoyed a majority in the Lords, but after nearly two decades of Labour government (as well as the coalition government), the balance of power lies with the pro-Remain parties.

Unlike the Commons, the unelected denizens of the revising chamber have no constituents to hold them to account. They have greater freedom to follow their own conscience.

That’s why the Prime Minister took the unusual step of sitting on the steps of the throne in the second chamber. Her presence will have served as a visible reminder to peers of the probable consequences of legislative petulance: a swathe of new Conservative peers, or massive constitutional reform. A vote against the Bill could be a vote for their own abolition.

But wholesale change, or a flooding of new peers, is not on the table – for now.

The legislation now heads to the Committee stage, where it will be scrutinised line by line. The Lords look likely to pass amendments guaranteeing EU nationals the right to remain in the UK, and giving Parliament a more meaningful vote at the end of negotiations. The House of Commons can then either accept these changes, or throw the amendments out.

Former Conservative Chancellor and Eurosceptic Lord Nigel Lawson warned the House against fiddling with the text of the Bill, as he believes any amendment would mark an ‘ill-advised, improper and fundamentally unconstitutional manoeuvre.’

But peers from other parties are reluctant to write the government a ‘blank cheque’ and are demanding the right to a consequential vote on any final deal – rather than a simple rubber stamp.

As it stands, the legislature will be presented with a Hobson’s choice in 2019: accept whatever deal the Prime Minister comes back with, or crash out of the bloc on WTO terms. The latter could destroy the competitiveness of British industry.

A further warning came from the former President of the Supreme Court Lord Hope. The convenor of the unaffiliated crossbenchers cautioned the government that they could face further legal challenges if parliamentary scrutiny of a final deal is prevented. The government is reluctant to waste time in the courts again, as this will only delay further the Prime Minister’s Brexit timeline, so a u-turn is possible.

It remains to be seen which of these amendments will pass at the next stage, and whether the government and the Commons will accept change. All that can be said for now is that the Lords have not yet voted against the ‘will of the people’ and have stayed the hand of constitutional reform.

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