On Brexit, the House of Lords Do What MPs Wouldn’t Do, and Pass An Amendment Guaranteeing Them A Final, Meaningful Vote on Any Deal to Leave the EU


A protest outside the Houses of Parliament on February 20, 2017 (Photo: Andy Rain/EPA).Please support my work as a reader-funded investigative journalist and commentator.


Congratulations to the House of Lords, where peers, by 366 votes to 268, have voted to give Parliament a veto over the final outcome of Theresa May’s Brexit negotiations, while voting against another amendment to allow a second referendum.

This is the second amendment to the government’s derisorily short Brexit bill, authorising Theresa May to trigger Article 50 and start the two years of negotiating time that is provided for the UK to leave the EU.

Last week, the Lords backed an amendment telling the government to respect the rights of the 3.3m EU citizens living and working in the UK to stay here, and not to treat them as “bargaining chips” in negotiations with the EU, a principled move that I wrote about in my article, House of Lords Defends Right of EU Nationals to Stay in the UK Post-Brexit, as the Tyrant Theresa May Vows to Overturn Amendment.

When the House of Commons debated the Brexit bill, a number of amendments, including guaranteeing the rights of EU citizens, and guaranteeing Parliament a final say on any deal, failed to pass — betrayals for which I will never forgive the many MPs who capitulated to arguments about respecting “the will of the people,” as I explained in my article, On Brexit, MPs Give Away Sovereignty, Vote to Allow Theresa May to Do Whatever She Wants. It is crucial to remember that the referendum last June was not legally binding, and no constitutional change this significant has ever been voted for in a referendum that only required a simple majority.

In addition, 75% of MPs support staying in the EU (in contrast to the 51.9% of voters who voted to leave the EU in the referendum), but when it came to defending the rights of EU nationals, MPs refused to take the moral high ground, guaranteeing them the right to stay, and thereby requiring the EU to do the same for the 1.2m British nationals living and working in EU countries. In addition, on Parliament’s role, the betrayal was just as sickening, although for other reasons.

Since becoming Prime Minister after the referendum, Theresa May has treated Parliament with contempt, refusing to allow MPs to have any involvement in negotiating Brexit, and requiring those who saw this as a sign of tyranny to have to go to the courts to get judges to tell her that her behaviour was unacceptable, and to remind her that, in the UK, sovereignty — the sovereignty the Leave campaigners were supposed to want to take back from the EU — resides not with the Prime Minister, but with Parliament. And yet, just weeks after the Supreme Court confirmed that MPs had this right, the majority of them gave it away without a fight, and it is not adequate for them to explain that the issues will be tackled after Article 50 has been triggered, as all Theresa May has seen so far is compliance.

Hence my support for the amendments voted for by the House of Lords, and I’m pleased to note that, of the 98 Lords who voted for this second amendment, 13 were Tories, and the most prominent Tory rebel was Michael Heseltine, a former deputy prime minister, who, with his colleagues, joined Labour, Liberal Democrat and crossbench peers.

Heseltine’s words reveal how immature those who currently claim to lead the party are. “Everyone in this House knows that we now face the most momentous peacetime decision of our time,” he said, adding, “And this amendment secures in law the government’s commitment … to ensure that Parliament is the ultimate custodian of our national sovereignty. It ensures that Parliament has the critical role in determining the future that we will bequeath to generations of young people.”

Other Tory peers were, to be frank, hysterical in their efforts to derail the amendment, as is sadly typical. While we Remainers are understandably angry about the colossal economic damage that Brexit will do if it goes ahead, these who voted to Leave, far too often, are intolerant of even the vaguest suggestion that any kind of debate is anything less than treason.

And so, as the Guardian reported, Lord Forsyth, a former Scotland secretary, hysterically stated, “These amendments are trying to tie down the prime minister. Tie her down by her hair, by her arms, by her legs, in every conceivable way in order to prevent her getting an agreement, and in order to prevent us leaving the European Union.”

And Nigel Lawson, a former Chancellor, called the amendment an “unconscionable rejection of the referendum result, which would drive a far greater wedge between the political class and the British people than the dangerous gulf that already exists.”

It was up to Douglas Hogg, another former minister, to point out that supporters of the amendment were not trying to stand in the way of the bill.

“The sole purpose is to ensure the outcome – agreed terms or no agreed terms – is subject to the unfettered discretion of Parliament,” Hogg said, adding, “It is Parliament, not the executive, which should be the final arbiter of our country’s future.”

That phrase is absolutely key to understanding Parliament’s role — and Theresa May’s intended overreach — and Hogg also pointed out that the amendment would not only enable Parliament to reject a “bad deal,” but would also allow MPs and the Lords, if necessary, to “prevent Brexit altogether by refusing to allow the UK to leave the EU without agreement” — a reference to the nightmare scenario that some are indicating might happen, whereby no new trade deals are finalised in the next two years, and the UK decides instead to fall back on World Trade Organisation rules, which, it seems abundantly clear, would wreak havoc on the British economy.

So again, in conclusion, my thanks to the House of Lords for, yet again, demonstrating wisdom and principles that are sorely lacking in the government and the Tory party, and, it must be noted, in the leadership of the Labour Party and in those Labour MPs who support remaining in the EU but who bowed to Jeremy Corbyn’s unacceptable three-line whip last month, compelling MPs to support the government.

For anyone who can clearly see Brexit for what it is — the most insane act of economic suicide in our living memory, and a doorway to unfettered racism, xenophobia and isolation — this is, to be frank, no time for supporting the government at all.

Unfortunately, it has always seemed likely that, despite the amendments, the Lords will not insist on obstructing the government if MPs overturn the amendments when the bill returns to the Commons. That said, the Guardian reported that, last night, Labour “indicated that the Lords will not back down immediately if the Commons next week reverses the two amendments to the bill passed in the upper house.”

The report continued, “A vote in the Commons to take out the amendments will lead to the bill going back to the Lords, and then shuttling back and forth until one side backs down, a process known as ‘ping pong’. Originally opposition peers indicated that they would fold quite quickly. But this evening Angela Smith, the Labour leader in the Lords, said she did not expect to see ‘extended ping pong’, implying that the Lords could send the bill back to the Commons at least once with the amendments still in. A Labour source said the Lords would want to be sure the government and the Commons had given ‘serious consideration’ to its proposals before accepting the will of the Commons.”

Note: For his perceived treachery, Michael Heseltine was sacked by the government from five advisory roles after the vote. In an interview with Radio 4’s Today programme, explaining that he was going to keep opposing Brexit, he said, “I believe the referendum result is the most disastrous peacetime result we have seen in this country.” He added that he had been “‘meticulous’ in not speaking to the press since the referendum result,” but also stated, “The point comes in life that you have to do what I believe to be right. I know these Brexiteers backwards. I have lived with them in government and opposition. They never give up. Why shouldn’t people like me argue in the other camp?” Well said, Michael Heseltine and how strange for me to be commending you, 32 years after you led the largest peacetime mobilisation of troops in British history against the peace camp at RAF Molesworth, which directly led to the violent suppression of the British traveller movement four months later at the Battle of the Beanfield.

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose debut album ‘Love and War’ and EP ‘Fighting Injustice’ are available here to download or on CD via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and the Countdown to Close Guantánamo initiative, launched in January 2016), the co-director of We Stand With Shaker, which called for the release from Guantánamo of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison (finally freed on October 30, 2015), and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by the University of Chicago Press in the US, and available from Amazon, including a Kindle edition — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here — or here for the US).

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14 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, congratulating the 366 members of the House of Lords who, in a second Brexit rebellion (following last week’s assertion of the rights of EU nationals to stay in the UK), have backed an amendment calling for Parliament to have a meaningful vote on the final deal for leaving the EU. Michael Heseltine was the most prominent of 13 Tory rebels, reminding Theresa May – and Brexiteers in general – that “Parliament is the ultimate custodian of our national sovereignty” (i.e. not the Prime Minister). Will MPs now find the moral courage not to capitulate to the would-be tyrant Theresa May, or will they be as spineless as they were last month, when they passed the bill with barely a murmur of dissent? Those MPs who believe in the EU – whether Tory or Labour – need to stand up and be counted, and not shrivel in the face of this misleading “will of the people” bullying by Brexiteers and the disgraceful right-wing media.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Here’s former Minister for Europe Denis McShane writing in the Independent. As he says, “Labour can fuse principle and politics by standing for the right of Parliament to say Yes or No to the outcome of Article 50 negotiations. That is in line with constitutional practice, sends a message to Ukip and to fellow travellers in the Cabinet, and tells the young of Britain that Labour is back on their side”: http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/brexit-lords-vote-labour-recover-its-voice-jeremy-corbyn-denis-macshane-a7617686.html

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    It’s also worth noting that Tory rebels in the Commons are also needed, in much more significant numbers than last month, when just one Tory, Ken Clarke, voted against passing the Brexit bill, and there were only 122 rebels in total, including 52 Labour MPs: http://www.andyworthington.co.uk/2017/02/09/on-brexit-mps-give-away-sovereignty-vote-to-allow-theresa-may-to-do-whatever-she-wants/

  4. Anna says...

    Hi Andy, hopeful signs 🙂 and actually an interesting phenomenon which makes you once more wonder about our current democratic system, as the seemingly obsolete institution of the Lords in fact seems to function better than the elected parliament. I suppose that is because they need not worry about having to be re-elected and therefore vote according to their conviction & conscience, rather than the way they expect their voters will approve. Full circle to some 100 yrs ago, when patriarchs with long time hereditary power ruled as opposed to four-years-cycle career politicians. Not that the former were always OK, far from that, but there were good ones who would have a sense of public responsibility. Who would have thought that they would suddenly prove their legitimacy again?
    I actually already had similar thoughts earlier on, when British judges belonging that lordly ‘cast’ had passed honest judgements in ‘terror’ cases.
    It does make you wonder about the viability of our actual election-based democracy, doesn’t it?

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks to everyone liking and sharing this. It’s very much appreciated. For UK citizens, this may well be the biggest story of our lifetimes, and the most destructive, and yet those who support it refuse to accept that it will be anything less than wonderful. For those who want to know more, I highly recommend Ian Dunt’s book, ‘Brexit: What the Hell Happens Now?’: https://www.canburypress.com/store/p22/Brexit-What-the-hell-happens-now-Ian-Dunt-ISBN-9780995497825

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Tabbie Brown wrote:

    So you don’t care that you could as a citizen vote for something and it be overturned by those that did that.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    It was an advisory referendum, Tabbie, not legally binding, and the outcome was so significant that it ought to have required a two-thirds majority, as is normal for referenda discussing huge constitutional changes. Look, If anyone can demonstrate to me that it won’t be economically disastrous, then let’s go ahead. I don’t agree with it, but it won’t be suicidally stupid. As it is, though, it very much appears to be the most stupid thing that the UK will ever have done, and that doesn’t make me inclined to accept it, when Cameron should be hauled up in court for his arrogance and negligence in calling it in the first place, just to placate UKIP and the right-wing of his own party – and Boris Johnson too for campaigning to win something he didn’t even believe in.

  8. arcticredriver says...

    Andy, I am glad to read members of the upper house are considering the plight of those residing in a country that is not their home, whether they are UK citizens, in Europe, or Europeans in the UK.

    Press coverage here fell short of explaining that the referendum was not legally binding. Here in Canada we have had several separation referendums, in Quebec, which would have been legally binding. One was alarmingly close.

    Am I correct in supposing most members of the voting public were not aware your referendum was not legally binding?

    Has the UK ever had a legally binding referendum?

    So, with enough pressure, could May be forced to convene a second referendum, a binding one, that could allow UK citizens to clarify they don’t want to quit the EU, after all?

    Would a second referendum, with better education of the voters, be likely to reach a different conclusion than the first, if it were held in 2017?

    Canada has over a million francophones who live outside of Quebec. If Quebec were to separate francophones who lived in the other nine provinces would be very likely to see an erosion of their traditional rights. Canada is officially a bilingual country, and francophones are entitled to be served in French by any Federal agency.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Great to hear from you, Anna. Unfortunately, the Tory majority in the House of Commons will almost certainly ignore the Lords’ amendments, leaving us waiting to see if they will ever challenge the cold imperious nightmare that is Theresa May, or just keep supine, murmuring over and over again, “the will of the people,” as if that was any sort of valid justification for spinelessness.
    I think that our Conservative leaders tended to be patrician until Margaret Thatcher, when, under her leadership, a new breed of callous cut-throats took over, and the spinning began in earnest, continuing under New Labour, so that now the main business of politicians seems to be in lying but pretending not to, and engaging in a host of diversionary tactics to permanently obscure the truth. There’s no honesty anymore, which is partly the reason that the Brexit vote happened, and as we can see if we try to work out when, honestly, a politician in a position of power last spoke honestly about the real reason that there aren’t enough jobs – no, not migrants, but neoliberalism outsourcing jobs abroad, and increased mechanisation – we can see that they haven’t addressed these topics for decades, and instead they just lie and spin endlessly. A very depressing situation.

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Good questions, arcticredriver. I am pretty sure that people were not told that the referendum was not legally binding, because the Tories – and Labour – behaved immediately after the referendum, and have ever since, as though not implementing it would go against “the will of the people” that they bleat on about endlessly, as though there would be a revolution if Brexit didn’t go ahead (which there wouldn’t be, of course, although many MPs might lose their seats at the next General Election).
    According to Wikipedia, btw, British referendums have never been legally binding: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Referendums_in_the_United_Kingdom
    The Lords voted against a second referendum, so that seems an unlikely course, and in the long run I hope that MPs are granted a meaningful vote in 2019 and that it is them who then refuse to support our wilful economic suicide, as sovereignty resides with them.

  11. Tom says...

    I know many anti Brexit people are still angry at Corbyn and others for not fighting against this hard enough. Not sure how they’d define that. But everyone knows that the markets are a mixture of many things. Money, data, emotions and perceptions. Everyone’s trying to find the perfect way to read the markets. Unfortunately, that doesn’t exist. Instead, the best things I found is to follow all of these areas AND your intuition. You’re not 100% right. But you have to pay attention to everything.

    A second (and legally binding) vote sounds great. But consider the message that sends to the rest of the EU. You’ve had one vote already. After the second one, will you honor the result? This perception effects everything from EU governments to the EU currency itself. Everything’s connected.

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    Actually, Tom, there’s no suggestion that a second vote will take place. What I think ought to happen is that, over the next two years, MPs, realising how disastrous it will be, refuse to endorse it. Article 50 isn’t irreversible. The EU will, generally, be happy for us to stay in the EU if we can get rid of the Brexit headbangers, who are absolutely blind to reason and the truth.

  13. Tom says...

    I agree.

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Tom!

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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