House of Lords begins debating Brexit deal; changes unlikely

British PM's Conservative Party can overturn Lords' opposition

Britain's House of Lords is completing its scrutiny of legislation to pull the country out of the European Union by the end of this month.

Under normal circumstances, the government would have dreaded such debates in the upper chamber; the Lords are famous for their opposition to Brexit and would have been expected to include "killer amendments" that could have frustrated the purpose of any law.

No longer, however. For although the Lords voiced this week plenty of criticism of the government's approach to Brexit, Prime Minister Boris Johnson's ruling Conservative Party enjoys such a crushing majority in the House of Commons that it can overturn any last-minute obstacle the Lords may put in the way of Britain's planned departure from the Union on Jan 31.

The House of Lords is a rare survivor from a bygone age. It is an entirely unelected chamber composed of people who enjoy membership for life but which, nevertheless, performs important legislative functions. Only Canada has a similar chamber.

Britain's House of Lords includes all those given a title by Queen Elizabeth on the advice of successive prime ministers, plus some with hereditary titles going back centuries that have been passed on to the current generation.

The Lords can only scrutinise and slow down the adoption of new laws; the lower and fully-elected House of Commons can override any amendments the Lords insert.

Still, because it includes top retired politicians, civil servants, judges and others with long careers in public service, the debates in the Lords tend to be more educated and interesting than those in the Commons, where MPs are expected to vote according to their party's line.

And since Brexit had split the British nation right down the middle, the Lords ended up playing a critical role; over the past four years, amendments introduced in the House of Lords often resulted in fundamental changes to legislation.

But all this has changed after Mr Johnson's landslide victory in the general election last month.

A century-old parliamentary convention bars the Lords from voting against a policy that a British government includes in its electoral manifesto.

... the government appears to pay little attention to the Lords' debate in the sure knowledge that, for the first time in decades, it enjoys a majority in the Commons.

The idea is that if a government won an election explicitly promising to deliver something, it is not up to the unelected Lords to quibble. The Conservatives made Brexit the key plank of the election.

But even if some of the peers were tempted to break this parliamentary convention, their gesture would be of no use since the government enjoys a "stonking majority" - as Mr Johnson puts it - in the Lower House: the Brexit Bill passed last week through the House of Commons with 330 votes to 231, a government majority of 99.

That did not shield Mr Johnson from some pointed criticism in the Lords this week. Lord Barwell, the man who served until last year as the chief of staff to former prime minister Theresa May and who had negotiated on her behalf with the EU, pointed out that the conditions under which Britain is now leaving the EU are worse than those Mrs May negotiated last year.

He also noted that the future trade deal Mr Johnson seeks to achieve with Europe is modest in comparison with the one sought by Mrs May's government.

"I regret these changes," Lord Barwell said. "I believe they are bad for our economy. History will judge us badly if we get this wrong."

Other lords also expressed misgivings about how EU citizens and stateless refugees will be treated under a new immigration regime introduced after Brexit, and about how British courts would be expected to reinterpret legislation originally applied by the EU courts.

However, the government appears to pay little attention to the Lords' debate in the sure knowledge that, for the first time in decades, it enjoys a majority in the Commons.

And the British media helps. It remains far more interested in covering the personal feuds inside Britain's royal family than covering the debate about the finer points of Brexit.

In one way or another, the Brexit legislation will get the British monarch's final signature next week, and the country will sever its links with the EU.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 15, 2020, with the headline 'House of Lords begins debating Brexit deal; changes unlikely'. Subscribe