Lord Newby: Article 50 bill is "not the end, it's just the beginning"
Lord Newby believes there is growing support on the red benches for the Liberal Democrats’ plan to force a second referendum on the terms of Brexit. And he tells Sebastian Whale that the fight against Brexit will not end with the Article 50 Bill
A glorious February afternoon has jacketless security staff at the Houses of Parliament whispering, as though not to jinx it, that spring is peering tentatively out the shadow of a particularly dreary winter. It is recess week, and, having passed without amendment a bill that will trigger Britain’s exit from the European Union and steer it on a new, unknown course, MPs have retired to their constituencies. Excited schoolchildren scurry around in their place, appearing mesmerised by the grandiose surroundings. But not every parliamentarian who works in the Palace of Westminster has vacated for the brief hiatus.
Richard ‘Dick’ Newby is dressed in his Friday best as we sit down in his red-all-over parliamentary office. The leader of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords, coming to the end of the week’s media engagements, has found himself in the spotlight. We meet before the first day of debate in the Upper Chamber on triggering Article 50, with 190 peers booked in to speak at the second reading. There is a pre-match atmosphere in Parliament, and Lord Newby seems up for the battle.
“It’s very much calm before the storm,” he says with his Yorkshire drawl. By a curious twist of fate for a party that has long called for Lords reform, the 101 Lib Dem peers hold genuine influence over what happens next, while their cohort in the Commons has been severely depleted. “I think the government’s going to lose on several things. I think they accept that,” he predicts.
The real action will occur at committee stage, where amendments to the Article 50 bill will be whittled down and voted on by peers.
Newby is confident that his colleagues will defeat the government on guaranteeing the rights of EU citizens to remain after Brexit. “Unless they make a concession beforehand, I don’t see how they can avoid it,” he says. He is also hopeful that peers will back an amendment allowing Parliament to vote on whether they find the final Brexit deal to be “acceptable compared to staying in”.
The 64-year-old’s main focus though is on Lib Dem’s push for a second referendum on Britain’s new relationship with Europe. For this, he says he has the support of Labour peer Peter Hain, Baroness Wheatcroft of Tory fame, and crossbencher Lord Warner. Speaking after the first days of debate, Newby claims that “very influential figures” have spoken strongly in favour of the party’s amendment, including former cabinet secretary Lord Butler. “There is clearly support from all benches for the Liberal Democrat fight to give the people a say on the final deal,” he says.
Much rests however on how the Labour party instructs their peers to vote. “It is winnable, it’s just a question about whether Labour stop it or not, frankly,” he says.
But the fight for a second vote will not stop once Article 50 has been triggered, Newby insists. Indeed, “it’s just the beginning”, he adds, saying the Great Repeal Bill and other Brexit legislation could be amended. In the meantime, the Lib Dems will be campaigning across the country arguing the case for a do over.
Newby says it would be “implausible” for MPs not to grant a second referendum if public opinion shifts in favour of Remain in the coming months. Parliament bequeathed the decision on EU membership to the public once, why would it prevent it again, he queries.
“We will look at every opportunity to get this provision for a vote of the people at the end,” he declares. But are Tony Blair, who has called on Remainers to “rise up” against Brexit, peers et al the right figureheads of this movement? “I think that everybody involved in public life has a right to make the argument, but this is a people’s issue now… it’s not in the hands of the Commons.”
The main stumbling blocks for the government, on EU citizens and the vote on the final deal in Parliament, passed comfortably in the Commons. Indeed, many observers note that this fact makes it harder, constitutionally, for peers to ask MPs to reconsider. Newby does not agree.
“People here like me have had Europe as one of the central themes of our entire political lives. We think what the government’s doing and the way it’s setting about it is a disaster. There’s not much appetite for sitting on hands here,” he says. As for threats of abolition, or fast tracking Lords reform, he is far from convinced.
“Some people around the government, and people like Oliver Letwin and Norman Lamont have said ‘unless you do as you’re told, we’ll be beastly’. And people are just laughing them, really. It’s not within the realms of possibility. And frankly as somebody from my group said, if I thought the option was that we could stop Brexit or that I’d be booted out of Parliament, I’d be booted out tomorrow.”
But in a nearly unprecedented move Theresa May was present as peers commenced the first day of debate on Article 50. With ministers rotating watch, like guards surveying the enemy’s activity, the government is posturing like it means business. The Lib Dems have long called for Lords reform, and Newby says the party would still like to see an elected Upper Chamber. But Newby believes that even though members of his team would sacrifice their peerages to secure key amendments on Brexit, ministers will not take action.
“The government’s made it absolutely clear that it has no intention of reforming the House of Lords in this parliament. It can’t, its collective brain is too small to manage Lords reform and Brexit. It’s just impossible for it to do it, not least because it would almost certainly lose, if not in the Commons, here. So they’re not going to touch it. The question is what are the Tories going to put in their next manifesto. Is it going to be to abolish the House of Lords? No, it’s not because they don’t believe in that either, whatever they say. They’re just sabre rattling at the moment,” he says.
One mechanism at the prime minister’s disposal, however, is to appoint a slew of Tory peers to give the government a majority in the Lords. Newby replies curtly: “Flooding the House of Lords would make them ridiculous and I don’t think they’ll do that. If they did that it would just make the case for reform easier.”
He believes the concerns are being overplayed. The bill will pass and May will meet her timeline of invoking Brexit by the end of March.
“What are we going to do? We are going to seek to amend the bill. The bill will go back to the Commons. Theresa May, if she’s any sense, will accept our amendments, but she won’t, probably,” he says.
“So it will come back here, we’ll have a bit of argy bargy but probably not very much. And they’ll get their bill. So what’s the big deal? I think the government just doesn’t like the thought that anybody can say ‘boo’ to them.”
And he dismisses “hysterical” claims that by amending the legislation peers are hamstringing the PM as she prepares to enter the Brexit negotiations. “The people on the Brexit side, the Iain Duncan Smiths of this world, have been having it all their way to such an extent by shouting loud and trying to intimidate people. Well they won’t intimidate people here,” he says. “We will behave in the way that we think is the correct constitutional way for the Lords to behave on a bill.”
Newby, born in Rothwell, West Yorkshire, studied PPE at St Catherine’s College, Oxford. He was the chief executive of the Social Democratic Party from 1983-88, and has worked on all subsequent Lib Dem general elections campaign. He was created a life peer in 1997, and also served as Charles Kennedy’s chief of staff. After holding ministerial posts in the Coalition government, Newby was appointed Lib Dem leader in the Lords last September.
Despite two Lib Dem MPs defying the whip and abstained on triggering Article 50, Newby insists the “vast bulk” of his peers are “enthusiastically supportive” of the party’s position. “We will have a very, very heavy vote,” he adds.
“It’s been a fascinating time. They are a terrific group, and they’ve been energised by this in many ways – the party’s been energised.
“I think everybody feels that we have a part to play on an issue that is central to our entire political careers. And we intend to play it to the full.”