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Lord Fowler delivers a report to the House of Lords advocating a reduction in numbers: If they delay Brexit there will be much talk of reform (©DAN KITWOOD/PA WIRE/PA IMAGES)


The Commons has had its fun with the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill — the key piece of legislation which implements the referendum decision of June 23, 2016, to leave the EU. Despite muted rebellions and fevered speculation, with one notable exception the Bill came out of the Commons unscathed. The only vote the government lost, on December 13 last year, was on the former Attorney General Dominic Grieve’s amendment mandating that another statute would have to be passed approving the final terms of withdrawal.

On that occasion Grieve and 11 other Tory Europhiles marched through the division lobbies with the opposition parties to defeat the government by four votes. Tory rebellions were nearly always limited to one or two MPs — invariably Kenneth Clarke, and when two, Anna Soubry — while Labour rebellions in support of the government’s approach were more numerous and larger. Kate Hoey and Frank Field most consistently voted with the government, but other more occasional rebels included Graham Stringer, John Mann, Kelvin Hopkins — currently suspended from the Labour Party over sexual harassment allegations — and even the ultimate Labour loyalist, the octogenarian Dennis Skinner.

Now the action has moved to the House of Lords, and the government will fare very much worse there than in the other place. The Conservatives have nothing like a majority in the Lords. At the time of writing there are 248 Tories in the Lords, including 49 of the 91 hereditary peers remaining since the reforms of 1999: less than a third of the total membership of 794.

This number will rise slightly — by up to 20 or so — when a new list, due imminently, of working peers is published but it will not change the picture dramatically. What is more, many of those on the Conservative benches, such as Michael Heseltine and Patience Wheatcroft, are ardent Remainers and will do all they can to impede the progress of the Bill.

There are, of course, Brexiteers in the Lords outside the Conservative Party — or example, the Democratic Unionists and UKIP, led by Malcolm Pearson, each have three peers. There is the former leader of the Social Democrats, David Owen; there are independent peers such as Stanley Kalms, the former Tory treasurer, and the ex-Labour lifelong opponent of European integration, David Stoddart; and there is a smattering of Brexiteers among the cross-benchers. But these small platoons in no way make up for the massed ranks of the Remainers.

The Bill has had its purely formal First Reading in the Lords and its Second Reading — where the broad principle of the Bill is voted on — is forthcoming on January 30. It is extremely foolish to predict the outcome of an event which has not yet happened at the time of writing, but it is most unlikely that the Bill will not get passed at Second Reading.
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