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Brexit could spark House of Lords revolution after peers’ threat to stall EU exit


41 percent of national parliaments, like the UK, use a bicameral system, meaning that Parliament contains two separate chambers. It is another democratic innovation, started in England, developed over time within the UK and then exported worldwide. However, according to many, the Lords is an aspect of British democracy in desperate need of reform.

It is estimated to cost the taxpayer some £20million a year in allowances and expenses.

Since its creation, many Prime Ministers have attempted to reform it but bids to create a “second chamber of the nations and regions” have repeatedly failed over time.

Calls for an overhaul of the Lords particularly intensified after the 2016 EU referendum, as the upper house tried to derail the Government’s Brexit plans on several occasions.

In 2017, pro-EU peers hatched a last-ditch plot to prevent former Prime Minister Theresa May from triggering Article 50.

In response, though, ex-Cabinet Minister Oliver Letwin called for a Commons debate on scrapping the House of Lords altogether.

The Brexit Bill, which initiated the negotiations for the withdrawal agreement, passed the Commons with a thumping majority but faced a bumpy ride through the Lords.

Dick Newby, the Lib Dem leader in the Lords, claimed he had “support on all sides” for a rerun of the historic EU referendum.

Labour’s Peter Hain also urged Mrs May’s government to “bring it on” while another Labour peer revealed they would “find a way to get the Lords behind us to push the Bill back to the Commons for another go at changing it”.

However, former Cabinet Minister Iain Duncan Smith warned the peers not to “get all puffed up” and give “a simple answer to a simple question”.

The Brexiteer added: “They are a reviewing chamber, but there is nothing to review here.

“It’s a simple four-line bill passed overwhelmingly by the elected Commons.”

Soon after Mr Duncan Smith’s statement, a Government source hit out: “If the Lords don’t want to face an overwhelming public call to be abolished, they must get on and protect democracy and pass this Bill.”

Downing Street, though, called for peace, saying it was right that the Lords reviewed the Bill and distanced Mrs May from any threats of abolition.

Yet, No 10 insisted that the former Prime Minister wanted to see the Bill pass in time for her to trigger Article 50 by the end of March.

After weeks of parliamentary ping-pong, the House of Commons overturned the Lords amendments and the Bill finally passed on March 13.

The debate on the future of the Lords did not end there, though.

A few months later, Lord Salisbury, the former leader of the House of Lords, urged Downing Street to use Brexit to reform the Upper House.

He wrote in his piece for Reaction: “The Lords is becoming more rebellious, not only on detailed legislation, but also on big questions: and there is no bigger question at the moment than our departure from the European Union.

“It would be unwise to deny that members of the House of Lords have the right to exercise their powers.

“They could, however, justly argue that the House of Lords would be unwise to do so.

“After all, any leader of the House of Lords knows that, tactically, a fight with the people as allies against the Government can be successful, but a fight by the House of Lords against the Government and people together is doomed to failure.”

Lord Salisbury noted the Government should have used this battle to raise a more fundamental question, though.

He explained: “The perceived illegitimacy of the Upper House has been an unresolved matter for well over a century.

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“Even in the salad days of the nod and the wink, the constant proposals for abolition and reform showed that 1911 and 1958 had not finished the business. The 2001 reform legislation explicitly said that it had not settled the matter. Indeed no one is really satisfied with our present arrangements.”

Before the coronavirus pandemic struck, it emerged that Prime Minister Boris Johnson was indeed planning radical constitutional reforms, including reforming the House of Lords.

According to The Times, the proposals were drawn up by Lord Salisbury, who was advocating with the Constitution Reform Group (CRG) for the Act of Union Bill.

The Bill, which was said to be “on the desk” of Mr Johnson’s team in January 2020, forms a sort of manifesto for the constitutional change that the CRG thinks is both necessary and inevitable.

The blueprint proposes a federal structure for the continuation of the Union, establishing the principle of self-determination among all four parts, as well as radical reforms in Westminster.

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It is believed Mr Johnson put these plans on hold in order to deal with the coronavirus outbreak.

However, discontent with the chamber continues as two leading members of the House of Lords want to axe hereditary peers.

Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town told The Sunday Times hereditary peers were “not something that would be accepted by the British public today”, while Lord Alderdice claimed they should be allowed to simply “wither away”.

The pair, along with Lord McFall of Alcluith, are currently in the running to become Speaker of the House of Lords.

Of the more than 800 hereditary peers across the UK, a maximum of 92 selected hereditary peers are entitled to sit in the House of Lords.


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