Baroness Evans: “Peers will respect the primacy of the Commons”
She’s the politically poised leader of the Lords charged with steering Brexit through an unusually hostile second chamber – but Alan Mak finds Baroness Evans unruffled by one of the greatest legislative challenges of modern times
Looking relaxed and sipping on her cup of tea, the Leader of the House of Lords could not be more unperturbed about the imminent prospect of steering a host of historic Brexit Bills through the Upper House.
The youngest member of Theresa May’s Cabinet at just 41 – and a full 28 years below the average age for a peer – Baroness Evans of Bowes Park has the unenviable task of ensuring the government’s legislative programme, including all its Brexit Bills, makes it onto the statute books intact.
Yet while the Conservatives only lost their Commons majority following the election in June, Baroness Evans has been grappling without a majority ever since she was appointed last year. Her fellow Conservative peers make up just 31% of the Lords membership, but she has not let mathematical disadvantage stand in the way of legislative success.
As she points out, Article 50 legislation was approved by the Lords unamended – albeit only after the Commons rejected a series of amendments – and she believes that forthcoming votes should be no different.
“The House of Lords is clear on its role, which is scrutinising and revising,” she says. “And all the party leaders have been quite clear that they understand the constitutional position of the House of Lords, which is to respect the primacy of the House of Commons. So I am confident that while we will have lots of difficult debates and discussions, we will all ultimately work to the same goal.”
Ardent Brexiters, such as Jacob Rees-Mogg, have suggested more drastic action should the Lords become obstructive, calling for the creation of new pro-Leave peers. Swiftly dismissing suggestions that an already swollen House of Lords should be expanded, Evans stresses the importance of working on a cross-party basis – a skill learned during her days as a government whip in the Lords. That includes a close relationship with her Commons counterpart Andrea Leadsom and chief whip Gavin Williamson.
She continues: “There’s not been a government majority in this House for a long time and we are used to working in an environment where the government of the day does not have an overall majority. But that’s where the relationships between the parties and making sure that we have a grown-up attitude to the work that we do is key.
“We do get defeated here, but that is done in a way to improve things or question the government of the day. But if the Commons rejects those amendments, then we step back.”
Ultimately, Baroness Evans argues, despite the challenge the government faces, everyone in the Lords wants to work towards a “smooth Brexit”. “That doesn’t mean there won’t be disagreements about approaches or difficult conversations,” she adds.
Following a meteoric rise to the top – Baroness Evans was only made a life peer by David Cameron in 2014 – some might be surprised by her unflappable nature.
But as she recalls, her political resilience was developed early in her career, including three years at Conservative Central Office during the dark days that were the height of Tony Blair’s New Labour government. Many of the people she worked with in those days – including Greg Clark, Paul Maynard, Steve Brine, and Penny Mordant – are now in government alongside Evans. “It’s slightly bizarre for everyone when I sit around the cabinet table and some of the people I sit there with are bosses from the old days,” she says.
“They were very difficult days in terms of the position of the Conservative Party, so it was certainly a baptism of fire. They were tough times. If you told me aged 20 or 21 that this is where I’d be, I would have laughed very, very heartedly.”
After leaving central office, Evans worked for the think-tank Policy Exchange before becoming director of the New Schools Network, a group which promotes free schools. Her immediate successor at the organisation was Nick Timothy – former chief of staff to Theresa May.
After two years in the Lords, she received the call from Number 10 – as much a surprise to her as it was to political commentators. Heading to Downing Street, she retraced the steps she first made as a teenager when delivering a note to Number 10 while working as a researcher for former minister David Willetts during her gap year.
“That day I had two Questions here, which is always nerve-wracking enough, standing up in the House of Lords with all of the expertise in front of you,” she said. “So I had already had a relatively traumatic morning. Then I had a phone call asking me to go in and it was all a bit of a shock and daze really. But I was incredibly honoured and absolutely delighted to do it, and I am really enjoying it.”
Her appointment, and the recent election of Vince Cable, means that for the first time the Conservative, Labour and Lib Dem leaders in the Lords are all younger than their Commons counterparts. Something Baroness Evans quips not many people “would know or believe you if you told them”.
She continued: “I have found the House very welcoming, and I have had a lot of support and good will, in particular because I was quite young and new when I became leader. In particular the women across the House have been very supportive.”
Educated at a state grammar school, a former checkout worker at Tesco and a Norwich City season ticket holder, Baroness Evans is certainly far from the caricature of a Tory peer. However, as a firm supporter of the role of the upper house, she believes that more needs to be done to educate the country about the work done by Lords and “break down the myths of who we are and what we do”.
“It is a place with a huge wealth of expertise,” she adds. “A huge array of talents from business to medicine to law, people from lots of different backgrounds, and lots of different life experiences, which is what I think this House brings to the legislative process and the scrutiny of the legislation.”
Rules first introduced in 2014 gave peers the opportunity to retire from service, something that Evans believes has changed the “dynamics and face of the House”. So far 68 have stood down, and she says she will look closely at a report on reducing the size of the Lords, by crossbench peer Lord Burns, set to be published later this year.
“There is concern amongst peers of the overall size and it is something that we have had a debate on at the end of the last year,” she said. “As a government we have been very clear, reform which would need legislation is not a priority for us. It would have to be something that the House can come together to support. So we will wait to see what the Burns’ recommendations are and see if there are options within that which the majority of the House can get behind.”
While many peers will have watched from the sidelines at the recent general election, Baroness Evans was in the thick of the action, campaigning in North Norfolk for husband James Wild – who is special adviser to Defence Secretary Michael Fallon. Although Wild failed to defeat the incumbent, Lib Dem former minister Norman Lamb, she found it a positive experience.
“I did a lot of printing off maps for canvassing routes and various things, fielded phone calls for him and made sure he was alright and knocked on doors,” she says. “In that sense being in the House of Lords could be slightly divorced [from the election] but actually it was the most involved in a campaign I have ever been and reinforced for me the incredible work that activists, associations and supporters on the ground do.
“It was not the result we wanted but he put up a good fight. I did really enjoy it and had a lot of support from colleagues on our benches from up here.”
Reflecting on the whole campaign, she believes the important issues she encountered on the doorstep were on education, skills and the workforce and, crucially, housing.
Echoing her former boss Lord Willetts, who recently warned of a “housing catastrophe”, she adds: “If I think about my friends and the younger people who worked for me at NSN [New Schools Network], housing and affordability, particularly in London, is critical.”
For the next two years all eyes will be on the House of Lords to see if peers stick to script and pass the government’s Brexit legislation. For one, Baroness Evans remains steadfast in her view that the upper chamber respects the primacy of the elected House and is there to be a “constructive partner”.
That remains to be seen, but the battle lines have been drawn and Baroness Evans will no doubt have her work cut out ensuring legislation gets safe passage in time for Brexit day. The Brexit Baroness’s unflappable nature and political resilience will surely come in handy.