As the Marquess of Salisbury bows out of formal parliamentary life this month and we are once again faced with a hung parliament, it is probably appropriate to discuss Atlas Director, Charlie Napier's, specialist subject the role of the House of Lords...

 

The Salisbury Doctrine 

I mention the retirement of Lord Salisbury readers may be aware of a parliamentary agreement known as the Salisbury Doctrine (or Convention) whereby the House of Lords agrees not to hold up legislation containing the manifesto commitments of the governing party. The latest guise of the convention, created by the current Marquess’ grandfather in 1945 with Labour’s Viscount Addison, sough to ensure a (then) overwhelmingly Conservative dominated Lords did not block the new Labour Government’s legislation.

More gentleman's agreement than constitutional requirement, the doctrine has not always been strictly adhered to, particularly during the Coalition years. However, there is no doubt that a lack of a 2015 manifesto commitment for Brexit (being pre-Referendum) was one of the reasons Theresa May called the election. She was concerned by the behaviour of the Lords, who had inflicted several defeats on the Government. A manifesto containing a firm commitment to leaving the EU, as well as a variety of other promises, would limit the Lord's power to block and delay forthcoming Brexit legislation.

 

Is Lords reform still on the cards?

Theresa May is no fan of the upper house, as her surprise appearance on the steps of the Queen’s throne in the Lords during their Article 50 debates clearly showed. The now infamous 2017 Conservative manifesto stopped short of Lords reform, but drove home to their Lordships that they must "respect the primacy of the House of Commons’" as well as committing to addressing its size. Such words have been uttered before and little has been done but the Conservatives may find common ground with Opposition parties if they wanted to somehow curb the power of the Lords.

What’s in their Lordships favour though, is that historically it is really hard to trim their wings, something I've set out before. As today's Queen's Speech reminds us, the small matter of Brexit is going to dominate this Parliament, leaving little room for any other major constitutional reform. The irony is that Labour and the LibDems, who have both long favoured serious Lords reform, are now looking forward to using the Lords to irritate and frustrate the Government.

So given Theresa May's failure to achieve a working mandate to side-lined the Lord's, where does this leave relations?

 

The Conservative-DUP Alliance

One key issue goes back to the manifesto and the Salisbury doctrine. A great deal of the manifesto is dead in the water - since it was deemed to be partly responsible for the lack of an overall Conservative majority. Then there is the DUP. At the time of writing we still don’t know what arrangement the Conservatives have struck with the DUP. No one is expecting a wide-ranging agreement like the one that secured five years of coalition. More likely there will be a "confidence and supply’" arrangement smoothed along by a series of inducements (generally financial) to bind the DUP into the agreement. However, the Conservatives are struggling to agree a deal and until they do, great uncertainty will still prevail despite this morning’s ‘Brexit’ Queen's Speech announcements.

A deal with the DUP will mean Theresa May can run a functioning government, for now. However, clearly her authority and by implication, her manifesto, is weak. The great gamble to trim the Lord's wings on Brexit has spectacularly failed. Time will tell whether the Lords strictly follow the 1945 doctrine, but a gambler would get short odds on the Lord's interfering as legislation arises.

In their eyes, May did not win an election, and therefore her manifesto does not stand. In addition, the election result and the rising hopes of Remainers and soft Brexiteers, mean the Lords will feel  emboldened. Given their overwhelmingly pro-remain sentiment there is a high potential for Parliamentary punch ups. Having spoken to a couple of members in the last 10 days, it is clear that their danders are up.

 

Who has the power now?

Over the coming months, we should expect some tortuous tautological debates about the Salisbury doctrine and its relevance, in the Lords and elsewhere. Whatever the outcome and whatever threats made, the House of Peers is arguably more powerful now than ever before (in recent history!). 

Eight Brexit Bills are due to go through Parliament in the next two years. So ultimately it may be the Lords who still make the most difference to the outcome of Brexit. Anyone who wants the government to listen to them will find that their Lordships hold renewed sway. Lobbying interests will no doubt focus hard on them.

It is almost unbelievable that one of the last unelected legislative chambers in the world, could hold the Government of one of the oldest democracies to ransom. Although I suspect the current Lord Salisbury’s most celebrated ancestor, William Cecil, the 1st Lord Burghley and Chief Advisor to Elizabeth I, would probably have rather approved.

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