The House of Lords is harming the British national interest by interfering in crucial trade negotiations

The House of Lords is harming the British national interest by interfering in crucial trade negotiations

“…the wisest members, the guiding members of the House, know that the House must yield to the people if the people is determined. The two cases that of the Reform Act and the Corn Laws were decisive cases. The great majority of the Lords thought Reform revolution, Free-trade confiscation, and the two together ruin. If they could ever have been trusted to resist the people, they would then have resisted it. But in truth it is idle to expect a second chamber — a chamber of notables — ever to resist a popular chamber, a nation’s chamber, when that chamber is vehement and the nation vehement too. There is no strength in it for that purpose.” (Bagehot, The English Constitution)

The members of the House of Lords who voted on Wednesday for the customs union amendment have sought to impose constraints on the UK trade negotiator. They are trying to use a piece of legislation to force a particular outcome in the negotiations between the EU and UK (over which the UK does not have control).

In doing so, they are harming the national interest because they are removing the flexibility that is needed in any trade negotiation.

But the victory here belongs not to the Lords, but to the EU. The EU can claim a victory because it has allies in the House of Lords who have been willing to limit the flexibility of their own country’s negotiators so that it can force the hand of the country’s trade negotiator. It also means that it is the Upper House which seeks to dictate terms to the Lower House.

It is axiomatic in any trade negotiation that the role of Parliaments or Congresses is to delegate trade negotiating authority to the executive branch: no country will negotiate with 600-plus members of the House of Commons, let alone the 800 or so members of the Lords. Be in no doubt, this amendment and those like it, if carried into law, would make the UK an irrelevance in trade policy terms.

This is a vote that leaves this country unguarded in the negotiating room with an EU that is happy to risk the UK being worse off than before. The result would certainly be a UK neutered inside a customs union and a single market, and a rule-taker. This is a vote to isolate Britain from like-minded countries outside the EU and limit the freedom of action of a democratically-elected government that seeks to deliver on the will of the British people, precisely when that freedom of action is needed the most.

Their Lordships may genuinely believe that the future of the UK is best served inside a customs union and adhering to the rules of the single market which will be set for us in Brussels. But the proper approach would then be to persuade the UK’s negotiating machinery to press for such a result (it would not be difficult – it is the revealed preference of the EU’s political establishment). Yet to seek to make this a law would negate any leverage the UK might have in all other parts of the negotiation.

This is a dangerous precedent that, if followed with other amendments like it, would mean the UK’s independent trade policy would be strangled before it takes even a few fragile first breaths.

The diplomatic assumption is that their Lordships were responding to fears about the UK’s position in the only way that makes sense to them. While their desire to protect the UK is obviously commendable, the manner in which they are choosing to do it will cause more pain to the country they are trying to protect.

Whether you voted Leave or Remain, we are all on the same side of the table now – and the EU is on the other. Unlike the EU, which is demonstrating serious discipline, in the UK we are squabbling with each other before we take up our chairs and settle down to the hard work of negotiation, while the EU watches bemused.

Watching the Lords intervene in the specific trade negotiating agenda is like watching children who all gather around the football on the pitch, no matter what their nominal position. But of course, the team does better when players stick to their assigned roles.

If we are to be successful, we must play like a team. The stakes are too high for the approach we are currently adopting to long endure. As Bagehot knew, the Lords’ assigned role is not to resist the will of the British people.