The British Conservative peer Michael Heseltine is not a stranger to allowing his opinions and convictions be known. The last mentions of him involved his dog Kim, and, more recently, a cyclist in Northamptonshire. Now he is ready to defy Prime Minister Theresa May and fight to change her plan on triggering Article 50, leading to the UK leaving the European Union.
This week, peers debate Mrs May’s bill to launch Brexit negotiations with the EU. These discussions then move on to cross-party plans to force the Government to guarantee Parliament a meaningful vote on whatever the final deal the Prime Minister manages to secure with the other 27 countries.
Writing in The Mail On Sunday, Lord Heseltine said: ‘I have never known a future populated by such uncertainty but my preoccupation is to ensure that if public opinion changes then Parliament has the means to reflect that, whether by election, referendum or rethink.’ He added Labour, Lib Dem and rebellious Tory colleagues also want a change to the Brexit bill that will mean MPs and peers have ultimate authority over how the UK leaves.
The Conservative peer went on: ‘In the end the outcome of Brexit will have to be confirmed by Parliament. It will also have to pass in 27 national European parliaments, several sub-national parliaments and the European Parliament […] It was perhaps unwise for our Government to suppose that our Parliament should be excluded where all others were included. Very sensibly, after the Supreme Court interpreted the law, that position was reversed and Parliament was restored to its rightful constitutional role as the ultimate authority.’
Gina Miller, whose Supreme Court action forced PM May to give Parliament the vote on triggering Article 50, has called on the Lords to show ‘backbone’ in challenging her plan for Brexit.
Meanwhile, a Labour Lords source said the party ‘would be likely to win handsomely’ if the issue came to a vote, though ministers may seek to avoid testing the theory this week by promising to make concessions to delay it.
Back in November I had the chance to hear Lord Heseltine speak during a conference on Brexit at the Maritime Museum in the port city of Liverpool. He stated back then that there is a ‘toxic mix when living standards freeze’ and which led to the vote to Leave in June. He believes it is in ‘Britain’s self interest to be in Europe’ and that it has led to peace across the continent for many years. The 27 other EU nations have to be persuaded during negotiations and there are ‘hundreds of versions of Brexit that could be made’ leading to a ‘serious prolonged period of uncertainty ahead.’
He has argued that ‘rising inflation could see wages not keeping up with price rises’, whilst public opinion is also not static and ‘didn’t stop in June’ and could lead to a re-think in parliament. The elections coming up in France and Germany could also lead to changes in governments, possibly moving more to the right, reflecting the Brexit vote here and the victory of Donald Trump in the US.
Heseltine’s intent is understandable, as are the ambitions of other peers and the former PM Tony Blair. Brexit, as being offered by May’s government, is starting to look like a wish list penned by a Tory hardliner during a liquid lunch. There’s very little there to tempt Remainers. Once the deal offered from the rest of the EU is known, Parliament should have a vote in the best interests of the country as a whole, and, if they vote against, the public should again be consulted.