Even though the Liberal Democrats were defeated on the final Brexit Bill, they showed themselves, in both Houses, to be united and principled in their opposition. A far cry from most Labour MPs and Peers.
As Parliament breaks for the Easter recess, we look back over a couple of months which have been dominated by Brexit and, in particular, the Bill to trigger the Article 50 process. What does it tell us about the state of the parties in parliament?
The Government showed itself to be arrogant and unwilling to compromise. It was able to get away with this because it knew that it had the votes to defeat any amendments to the Bill and it used this power ruthlessly. Although its position vis a vis negotiating a Brexit deal is relatively weak, its current position in parliament is impregnable.
For Labour, the position was less clear. A large majority of Labour MPs oppose Brexit, but in both the Commons and the Lords, Labour pulled its punches because Jeremy Corbyn was not up for a fight and because many Labour MPs – often representing constituencies which voted Leave – were not prepared, for example, to support continued membership of the single market because they wanted to be able to claim that they supported controls on EU immigration.
In the Lords this approach was replicated. We had to witness Diane Hayter, Labour’s Brexit spokesperson and a convinced European, make an anti-single market speech and impose a whip to vote against an amendment moved by Peter Hain (and supported by the Lib Dems) to maintain our single market membership. That ploy didn’t go too well, as 33 Labour Peers defied the Whip and over 100 abstained. Only 53 supported their front bench.
Things didn’t go any better on the Lib Dem amendment to require the people to have the final say on the Brexit deal. Labour opposed this on the basis that it was too complicated a decision to be left to the people, but said that they might change their minds if public opinion changed. They, therefore, whipped Labour Peers to abstain on the amendment, although 22 of them supported us on it.
We did align with Labour on trying to guarantee the rights of EU nationals in the UK and on the need for a meaningful parliamentary vote on the outcome of the negotiations. As a result, we defeated the Government on both these amendments by approximately 100 votes. But when the Commons predictably defeated these amendments and the Bill came back to the Lords, Labour immediately folded up their tents and slunk away. It took a crossbench peer to remind them that in the game of ping-pong (when legislation passes back-and-forth between the upper and lower houses over points of disagreement) you don’t end a rally just because you’ve hit the ball over the net once.
For the Lib Dems in the Lords, we kept going as long as we could, to promote our second referendum amendment, to vote against the Brexit Bill at third reading, and to vote again and defend (on ping-pong) the amendments that we had passed the first time. We had a high degree of unity and a high turnout – peaking at 95 per cent - which easily outdid both Labour and the Tories. And we received hundreds of supportive e-mails for our efforts, mainly from EU citizens who were worried about their future in the UK. We had the satisfaction of making a stand on something we believe in.
The depressing thing about the whole debate, however, was that so many people spoke or voted against their convictions. On the Conservative side, this extended to many on their front bench. For Labour the numbers were greater. We have made some new Labour friends and strengthened relations with others. But Labour’s leadership in the Commons is frightened of its own shadow and, in trying to please everyone, is pleasing no-one. Labour’s leadership in the Lords takes its lead from the Commons.
So, as we approach the Queen’s Speech and plans for the next parliamentary session, it’s clear that Brexit will continue to dominate the agenda. I suspect that the main battles will not be just over aspects of the “great” Repeal Bill, but on the bills on immigration, customs and agriculture, which the Government has to pass in order to have new systems in place before March 2019.
For my part, I’m clear how we as Lib Dems will approach them. Sadly, I can’t say the same about Labour.
Lord (Richard) Newby is the leader of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords. He was made a life peer in 1997 and is a former president of the SDP. He tweets at @RichardNewby3