The House of Lords will be pilloried by the anti-European press this morning. They will be dismissed as enemies of the people, because on Tuesday they had the temerity to pass, by a clear majority of 98, a vital and impeccably traditionalist amendment to the government’s bill to begin negotiations on Brexit. In this newspaper’s view, they were within their rights to do it and, just as important, they were right. The amendment requires parliament to have meaningful votes on the result of the negotiations before Britain leaves the European Union. This is not controversial. The government had orally promised such votes during debates in the Commons. The amendment turns the promise into a requirement. That is all.
This is not peers versus the people. It is neither a veto grab nor a wrecking amendment. But it is parliamentary sovereignty versus prime ministerial rule – and that’s important. The government has almost got its bill through. Yet without the amendment, there would have been no requirement for parliament to have a say when the negotiations are done. In the absence of that, Theresa May could agree to anything. Now, or until the government overturns the amendment in the Commons, she is again answerable to parliament. That’s how the parliamentary system has always worked. It is how it ought to work now.
Brexiters talk arrogantly as if any and every attempt to give parliament a role in the Brexit process is a betrayal of the British people. Asserting parliament’s role is no such thing. To take an admittedly unlikely example, Mrs May could decide that the decision to leave the EU requires Britain to pay an annual fee of billions of pounds to the EU in perpetuity for the right kind of deal. Most Brexiters would be outraged if Britain had to pay an annual tax to the EU for the right to leave. They would say, rightly, that this was a betrayal of the leave vote. They would insist it must not happen. Yet unless they had allowed parliament to have an effective say over the negotiated deal, Mrs May would be within her rights – even though she would be politically dead in the water for doing it – to authorise the direct debit to the EU.
Those who support Brexit should stop bullying those who are worried about how it may happen. They should admit that parliament must reserve the right to change its mind. It probably won’t come to this. Circumstances will have to alter before there is any chance of it. The Lords are not stupid. They accept the Brexit vote. Monday they voted against a second referendum. In spite of what conspiracy theorists like Lord Forsyth may say, parliament has a duty to decide on the terms. As Lord Kerr said on Tuesday, the mantra that the whole issue has been decided and cannot be revisited in any circumstances is the law of the lemmings. The Brexit secretary David Davis has himself said that a democracy that cannot change its mind is no longer a democracy. Mr Davis is right. Lord Kerr is right. The majority in the Lords are right. Lord Forsyth is wrong. And the Brexiters are wrong.
The government is desperate to meet its own timetable for triggering article 50 next week. Mrs May’s instinct will be to reverse Tuesday’s amendment (along with last week’s on the rights of EU nationals in the UK to remain here after Brexit). She should beware. MPs have made a poor defence of parliament’s rights in the Brexit process so far. But the Lords vote may have emboldened soft Brexit Tory MPs. It is certainly time that they showed more spine on the issue. MPs should uphold the Lords amendments.
The Supreme Court’s ruling in Gina Miller’s case has placed a weight on parliament that large parts of it have been politically reluctant to bear. But Brexit is an issue of such importance that parliament must learn to bear that weight. Parliament must defy the opprobrium of the anti-European press. The Lords showed the way to the Commons on Tuesday. Both houses, and the government, should accept the Lords amendments.