Why the Lords Won’t and Can’t Block Brexit
It’s been over a year now since the date for the European Referendum was set, way back in February 2016. We’ve had a whole year of being bombarded with the phrases ‘Brexit’ and ‘Article 50’, ‘Remainers’ and ‘Brexiteers’. It seems as if the whole country is sick of the whole affair – this author certainly is. But law is rarely a fast moving thing, and the bill to actually begin the process of leaving the European Union is yet to officially be confirmed by the Houses of Parliament. Its latest step has been to reach the House of Lords, which is required to confirm the bill and – crucially – edit the bill if necessary. This, of course, has spirited up yet another argument from this dead horse: namely, should the House of Lords actually do anything to this crucial bill?
Legally, there is nothing to stop the House of Lords editing or even to some extent rejecting the Brexit bill. In fact, it is rather in their job description, so to speak. The House of Lords is theoretically made up of experts in specific fields – Lord Alan Sugar, for instance, is an example of a business expert – and it is designed to scrutinise bills passed by the House of Commons, changing them and sending them back to the Commons if they think the bill is not useful in its current form. As such, if the House of Lords judges the Brexit bill to be against the national interest, they break no rules to send it back. This power is however not absolute, and the Commons can essentially override the Lords if they keep refusing to pass the bill. So, assuming the Commons remains controlled by the pro-leave Tories (which it will) the Brexit bill will eventually be passed. The worst the Lords could do on this front then is delay the bill, which is frustrating for Brexiteers, but nothing more. However, the Lords can also propose changes to a bill, and this is a real fear of the hard-line leave voters. The Lords may suggest a much softer bill, and the Commons might accept this – and it would be entirely legal. So how likely is this to happen?
The UK voted to leave behind the unelected leaders of the EU. Beyond parody if the unelected House of Lords could hold up Brexit…
— Lord Ashcroft (@LordAshcroft) February 27, 2017
Realistically? Not very likely. Some have pointed to the fact that as the House of Lords are not elected, they need not fear the wrath of the people, and so may decide that they should get in the way of the what the people voted for as they can suffer no consequences. However, this largely ignores the fact that the House of Lords is weaker than the House of Commons, and can just be overruled. The Commons is extremely unlikely to even consider seriously amending such a politically charged bill, as they are subject to the electorate and – like it or not – the electorate voted with a fair majority to leave the EU. Messing around with a bill like that is like playing with fire for the Conservative government, especially with UKIP still polling third in most surveys. Should the Lords seriously try and amend the bill, the Commons will just reject it. Eventually, the House of Lords will have to concede, and the bill will just be passed anyway. So, it is very unlikely that the Lords will even try for significant changes, if any changes at all. If there is an edit to the bill from the Lords, it will be inconsequential, and likely focused on citizenship rights for British expats in the EU, and EU citizens who have been living freely here. So, for any hopeful Remainers who thought the Lords would save Britain from Article 50, sorry but no. As for concerned leave voters, do not fear; Britain will be leaving the EU.
So, this begs the question: why has there been all this fuss? In general, this has all been about political manoeuvring. Conservative politicians can curry favour with leave voters by making threats to the House of Lords, and the Conservatives will then hold most of their seats in rural England, which voted heavily to leave. Furthermore, supporting a ‘hard Brexit’, as people have taken to calling it, keeps these MPs on the party line. This will please the government and potentially earn them a promotion. All the posturing on this issue is because it’s so politically charged – over 70% of the country voted on this – so they know the media will pick it up, report it, and gain them notoriety. They are playing the game of power, as politicians tend to do.
In short, nothing much will change. The bill will pass with few, if any, amendments. Article 50 will be triggered. Britain will leave the EU. And hopefully, the news will eventually, one day, stop talking about Brexit.