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Lords must look before they leap into blocking Brexit

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The Supreme Court’s Brexit decision, deciding whether ministers need an act of parliament to leave the EU or not, is due in January. If there’s no need for an act, Theresa May will simply write a letter to start the Article 50 process at the end of March and the clock will start ticking on a two-year countdown from then.

But what if parliament has to pass an act? What then?

Let’s assume that ministers are doing their homework properly, which means that they will be getting a draft act ready to go as an insurance policy, to be kicked off in parliament within days if the Supreme Court judgment goes against them. It will be super-short and as simple as they can make it, so there is less scope for anti-Brexit saboteurs to meddle or delay it, and they will use the shortest, fastest route they can find through the maze of parliamentary procedure, too.

Most MPs will feel honour-bound to support it, even if they supported Remain. A few will huff and puff but it ought to go through the Commons with a big majority because elected MPs are, almost by definition, democrats first and foremost. They will subordinate their personal views to the referendum decision.

But what about the House of Lords? They have to approve an act of parliament, and far more of them are ardent pro-Europeans. Peers don’t have to be re-elected by anyone, so will they delay Brexit, or even derail it entirely?

Nothing nearly so gauche. Their lordships are subtle and if they want to oppose not only the democratically elected MPs in the Commons but also a referendum decision they know that they can’t be too obvious about it.

So no one will actually say that Brexit should be abandoned. Oh dear me, no. Instead, brows will be furrowed and weighty pronouncements made about the need for careful assessment of all the risks and for complex problems to be analysed in depth. Committees will be proposed, with long and slow timetables for taking evidence and weighing views. And so on, and on, and grindingly on until, one day, someone quietly observes that it’s all a bit late and isn’t that funny old referendum looking a bit out of date by now anyway?

Which would be a mistake. Because delaying tactics, even if they’re brilliantly subtle, are vanishingly unlikely to fool anyone. If the country decides that an unelected upper chamber has got too big for its boots by ignoring the referendum decision this could easily provoke a backlash. Reform would suddenly be in the air. Tumbrils would start to roll. People would start asking why these people were, literally, lording it over us.

The richest irony would be that for those of us who care about such things it might derail some rather promising reform ideas that their lordships have just started discussing themselves. They’ve realised that, thanks to Tony Blair’s reforms, each new government feels that it must appoint lots more lords and ladies so that it has a working majority in the upper house. That means that there is a never-ending ratchet making the Lords bigger and bigger every year. If nothing changes their numbers will pass 1,000 in a few years, and 2,000 a decade or two later. Which means that, at some stage, they will implode under the weight of their own absurdity. They will become a laughing stock rather than a respected council of elders and experts who serve their country with pride.

Their lordships have understood the danger and are trying to do something about it. They’ve started retiring, rather than only leaving when they die. And they’re even (whisper it quietly) talking about democracy by excluding a proportion of their number to reflect the votes in the previous general election.

All of which, for reformers like me who think that it’s important for the upper house to work properly, will be a step in the right direction. How sad it would be, though, if all those good intentions were swept away in a revolutionary spasm because the Lords had frustrated the people’s will from the Brexit referendum. We wouldn’t just be loosening our ties with Europe. We’d be severing important links with our past as well.

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