Press play to listen to this article
LONDON — Crossbench peers in the House of Lords are preparing a full-frontal attack on the U.K. government’s controversial plans to rewrite the Northern Ireland protocol when parliament returns from its summer break.
At a crunch meeting behind closed doors next week, senior peers — including leading ex-judges and barristers — will agree their strategy to try to take down the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, an explosive piece of legislation designed to give U.K. ministers the power to ignore crucial parts of the painstakingly negotiated Brexit deal.
The protocol bill sailed through the House of Commons this summer with no amendments, but is facing a real battle in the U.K. parliament’s upper chamber, where it arrives for its first debates after the party conference season in early October. The showdown will likely prove the first major parliamentary test of the new prime minister — widely assumed to be Foreign Secretary Liz Truss — who will be in place from September 6.
The stakes are high, and peers are in no mood to compromise.
“There will be weeks and weeks and weeks of battle over this bill, because there’s a lot in it that many lords on all sides will really hate,” said Peter Ricketts, a crossbench peer and the former head of the U.K.’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.
Two aspects of the bill are driving concerns in the Lords: the U.K.’s plan to use the legislation to switch off parts of the Northern Ireland protocol — which many observers believe would amount to a breach of international law — and the significant delegated powers ministers would gain under its provisions.
As ever, parliamentary tactics will be key. Peers opposed to the legislation are divided among those who would like to vote it down completely at its second reading, and those who favor amending it heavily and sending it back to the Commons with a stark message of disapproval.
Rejecting the bill outright would make it clear the Lords considers the legislation “really unacceptable, in any shape or form,” said one leading peer, speaking on condition of anonymity. But the peer also warned such a move could be interpreted as an “insult” to the elected Commons. As an unelected chamber, the Lords’ role is normally to scrutinize and improve legislation rather than blocking it altogether.
Amending the bill, many peers believe, would be a more reasoned way of highlighting the bill’s most problematic areas, though may prove less effective in achieving a change of policy.
Peers recognize the battle is likely to be tougher than the struggle over the incendiary Internal Market Bill in 2020. In that case, Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis’ acknowledgement that the proposals did indeed break international law — in what he described as a “specific and limited way” — helped the opposition’s cause. The bill did eventually become law, but only after the government withdrew its most controversial clauses.
This time ministers insist their approach is legal, arguing that the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill is the only remaining way to protect the Good Friday / Belfast peace agreement. The government claims the historic 1998 deal ending decades of sectorial violence is now at risk because of the way the EU is trying to enact the protocol. Peers insist this argument is flawed, because the government knew full well the impact the protocol would have in Northern Ireland when it was agreed.
The bill is also seen in the Lords as an executive power grab due to sweeping new powers it would grant to ministers, allowing them to change policy regarding trade in Northern Ireland without the need to secure parliamentary approval.
A damning report published by the Lords delegated powers and regulatory reform committee in July identified as many as 12 cases of power being delegated to ministers, which peers found “inappropriate.” Many of those cases are expected to form the basis for possible amendments.
The committee concluded that the bill “represents as stark a transfer of power from parliament to the executive as we have seen throughout the Brexit process,” and “is unprecedented in its cavalier treatment of Parliament, the EU and the government’s international obligations.”
Several old amendments that failed to pass in the Commons are also expected to resurface in the Lords, including symbolic changes designed to send a clear message to Belfast — and indeed Washington — about the overriding importance of peace in Northern Ireland.
Peers believe this would send a “strong signal to all of the flavors of Northern Irishness that there’s no change from that perspective,” said crossbench peer Charles Kinnoull, who chairs the Lords European Union committee.
David Pannick, a human rights lawyer who won the Article 50 Brexit case; Igor Judge, a former Supreme Court judge and convenor of the crossbenchers; and David Anderson, a barrister who previously served as the U.K. government’s independent reviewer of terrorism legislation, are thought to be among the crossbench peers leading the charge against the bill.
Assuming peers settle on amending the bill, its process through the Lords could take one full day for second reading; as many as six days for committee deliberations; three days for the report stage; and a further full day for its third reading. Ping-pong, the process by which the bill is sent back and forth between the two houses as they try to resolve disagreements about the final text, could then take several more weeks, potentially delaying the bill’s passage until the end of the year.
In the meantime, Truss is considering buying herself time by triggering Article 16 of the protocol — a more legitimate, if likely temporary, way of suspending parts of the agreement.
Eyes on Labour
The bill’s ultimate passage may now depend on the Labour Party, which has been cautious under Keir Starmer’s leadership not to take up positions which could be portrayed as siding with the EU against Britain.
The main opposition party is “very conscious of what the electorate might think,” and this will need to be “a factor” in whichever strategy the Lords adopts, according to the crossbench peer quoted above. Labour votes — along with the other opposition parties and some rebel Tories — would be required for the crossbenchers to have any hope of winning key amendment votes.
Jenny Chapman, a senior Labour frontbencher in the Lords and one of Starmer’s closest political allies, told POLITICO her party “will engage as constructively as possible” with the government’s plans.
But she added: “If we were in government, we would not be proposing this legislation. The only way of solving this is through dialogue and negotiation [with Brussels].”
Chapman believes many Tory peers opposed to the proposals might vote against them initially, but would eventually align with the government as the ping-pong process plays out — “especially if this becomes an issue of authority for a new Conservative prime minister.”
Peers are well aware any amendments they make are likely to be rejected by the Commons, where the Tories have a large majority. But they hope a drawn-out scrutiny process may at least create room for further political talks between the U.K. and the EU this fall.
“In the end, this is only the background music to what actually needs to happen — which is discussions followed by a deal between the two great unions,” Kinnoull said. “But it’s very unpleasant background music, and not a tactic I’d applaud at all.”
This article is part of POLITICO Pro
The one-stop-shop solution for policy professionals fusing the depth of POLITICO journalism with the power of technology
Exclusive, breaking scoops and insights
Customized policy intelligence platform
A high-level public affairs network
Soruce : https://www.politico.eu/article/liz-truss-first-parliamentary-battle-brexit-northern-ireland-protocol/