Theresa May’s government introduced a bill to parliament on Thursday which is intended to formally begin Brexit proceedings, after the Supreme Court ruled that parliament must vote on triggering Article 50.
However, this means that it is not just elected MPs who will vote on the ‘European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Act’. The Lords, the unelected political appointees who make up the upper chamber of the UK parliament will also have to pass this legislation.
This is a potential problem for Prime Minister May, who has purposefully introduced a two-line bill, in order to make it tough for ‘Remain’ supporting legislators to amend.
The Lords, unlike the Commons where MPs sit, is not controlled by May’s Conservative Party.
Instead it consists of 805 political appointees, 689 of whom are ‘life peers’ who will keep their seat until death (90 are hereditary peers, the other 26 are bishops of the Church of England).
Only 253 of the 805 are Conservative.
This means that Labour and the Liberal Democrats (as well as so-called cross bench peers, who do not belong to a party and vote issue by issue) have a great amount of power to alter and even block legislation. It is thought that a majority of the Lords are in favour of remaining part of the EU.
It is unlikely that the Lords will actually go as far to block the legislation. Lord Newby, leader of the 101 Liberal Democrat Lords said “People here (in the Lords) aren’t stupid… our role isn’t to frustrate the will of the people”. Another legislator, the Labour Party’s Lord Blunkett, said to block Brexit legislation would be “foolish in the extreme”.
However as Baroness Wheatcroft, a senior Conservative peer, said in August “there’s a majority in the Lords for remaining (in the EU)”. And this has clearly made May and her government nervous in recent months.
In November it was decided to cancel plans to reform the way the unelected upper house works. Currently, the Lords must approve any bill or amendment that MPs pass, before it can be passed to the Queen to be signed and made law.
However, a proposal from the Strathclyde review would have banned the Lords from blocking legislation, by giving parliament the power to force any bill through (parliament’s powers to push legislation through is currently limited).
This decision was reportedly prompted by fears that angering the Lords may affect their willingness to allow Brexit legislation through.