Repeated acts of defiance on Brexit has boosted the Upper House’s survival hopes, says Lesley Riddoch
You can say one thing for the Royal Wedding. It provided the ideal cover for Theresa May to slip out “bad news” about more peers for the House of Lords.
The Prime Minister used the Royals’ happy day to appoint nine more Tories, along with new Labour, DUP and crossbench members, presumably to buy support for her beleaguered Brexit Bill and others still to reach the Upper House. So just as lefties and Remain voters were starting to warm to the Lords after their 15 acts of rebellion on the customs union, the Irish border and removing the precise date from Brexit legislation, the ineffectual essence of the second chamber has been cruelly revealed. Their ladyships and lordships can cavil for all they’re worth, but the Prime Minister has the legislative means to pack in more peers and dilute discontent without substantial objection from the other side. Three peerages were craftily shoved Labour’s way as well, prompting complaints from Lord Adonis: “I’m very surprised the Labour Party is playing this game … because it legitimises the actions of the Tories.”
Well, Lord Adonis would know. He was the first peer in decades to hold an important government post as Secretary of State for Transport in 2009, alongside Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, Lord Mandelson.
Indeed, a Commons select committee highlighted the growing tendency of Gordon Brown to use lords as ministerial appointments in 2010, prompting the newly-elected Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, to object to the practice in a Hansard Society lecture: “I find the fact that backbenchers have no means of directly questioning prominent ministers of the Crown because they happen to sit in the House of Lords less than satisfactory. That is even more true at a time when the Cabinet contains the esteemed Lord Mandelson, whose empire is of a scale not seen since the death of Alexander the Great, and the thoughtful Lord Adonis, who presides over the country’s transportation network.”
Labour’s use of peers in Government is just one of many ironies about life in the Other Place. The Lib Dem leader Sir Vince Cable turned down a peerage after losing his Twickenham seat in 2005, voting instead for the chamber’s abolition. But since the Lib Dems now punch well above their weight with 100 peers (12 per cent of the total) against just 2 per cent of MPs, their leader’s stance has changed. Cable cheered on the Lords as they rewrote statutes to force a much softer Brexit on the Government and was unapologetic about his apparent volte-face: “The [Lib Dem] peers know that when my Commons colleagues can command a majority for reform we will liquidate them. In the meantime, I applaud their capacity to defeat and embarrass the Government. With the minds of their lordships uncluttered by concerns about re-election, they have been able to dwell on the quaint notion of the national interest.”
But U-turns are not the sole preserve of Remainers when it comes to the House of Lords. When the coalition government tried to make the chamber predominantly elected, the most eloquent defenders of the status quo were Jacob Rees-Mogg, John Redwood, David Davis and Bill Cash. They must be spitting bullets today.
So what does Mrs May’s latest addition mean? Maybe not much. Friday’s appointments still leave her short of a majority in the Upper House, prompting the strange thought that this unwanted enlargement was just “routine”. Of course the Lords still has some way to go before outstripping the People’s Congress of China (2987 members) as the biggest unelected chamber in the world. But it makes a nonsense of Britain’s oft-repeated claim to possess the Mother of Parliaments.
Across the world, just 22 (12 per cent of countries) have unelected parliamentary chambers. Ten are not electoral democracies, while the remaining 12 are all Commonwealth countries, which have essentially copied the Westminster model. Only two – the UK and Canada – are OECD countries with established democratic systems of government. Otherwise, the UK finds itself in the company of states such as Belize, Lesotho, Madagascar, Oman, Russia and Saudi Arabia.
That’s why a report last year recommended that the Lords be cut by a quarter and that new peers serve for 15 years, not life. Amazingly Mrs May backed the proposal (since it didn’t preclude the creation of new peers) but the upshot is a Lords which is now bigger than the Commons yet “fails to represent large parts of the UK”.
According to former Labour leader Ed Miliband, the north-west of England has nearly the same population as London but the capital has five times more members in the Lords.
So what happens next? When the Brexit legislation comes back to the Commons, the Government will probably steamroller its legislation through, hoping it can minimise Conservative rebellion and rely on Jeremy Corbyn’s private sympathy for Brexit. Legislation will then go back to the Lords, where convention dictates there should be only token resistance: so-called ping-pong. But there’s no guarantee the newly emboldened lords and ladies will go quietly – despite or perhaps because of Mrs May’s latest additions to the Tory ranks. There could be greater resistance in both the Commons and Lords to future Brexit bills (there are seven more coming) and a chance the whole package will be rejected when it faces a vote this autumn.
There is, however, another detail which could yet cast a plague on both Houses. As politicians play parliamentary games, the public’s tolerance of the antiquated upper chamber has worn thin. A petition to hold a referendum on scrapping the Lords has collected more than 150,000 signatures, meaning the issue will be debated in the Commons on 18 June. The organisers are Brexit campaigners and a voting breakdown shows strongest support from areas that voted to Leave the EU in June 2016.
So is this a serious threat to the Upper House? Probably not. Few want to scrap the idea of a second chamber completely and their robust performance over the Brexit bill means Remainers may swallow their collective conscience and vote with Tory traditionalists to keep the Lords intact. These may be odd bedfellows but, as long as their lordships keep pushing for a softer Brexit, their future looks safe.