MPs are gearing up for a Brexit-defining fight over the EU customs union, amid reports that Brussels has ‘annihilated’ Britain’s plans for the Irish border, but Lib Dem Lord Newby is among the peers to fire the first shot . Arj Singh reports.
A year ago Theresa May called a snap general election expecting to win a huge Commons majority to back her Brexit strategy, in a move one newspaper infamously described as her chance to “crush the saboteurs”.
It did not go as planned.
This week the House of Lords inflicted two defeats on the Government over its flagship Brexit legislation, with 10 more predicted to follow, emboldening Conservative rebel MPs seeking to exploit the Prime Minister’s lack of a Commons majority to reshape the terms of Britain’s exit from the European Union.
It was the opening salvo in what is expected to be a major battle over whether the UK should remain part of the customs union, which Mrs May has vowed to leave, and whether MPs get a more “meaningful” vote on Brexit.
As leader of the pro-EU Liberal Democrats in the Lords, Lord Newby could be described as a saboteur in chief.
The 65 year-old is unelected and in a party which enjoys outsized influence in the upper chamber compared to its ballot box performance, but he rejects the idea that he is part of an Establishment stitch-up of the will of the people.
The former whip points to his West Yorkshire roots, growing up in Rothwell and attending the local grammar school.
His mother’s family has lived in the area since “at least” the 16th Century, and she herself is still there at the age of 101.
Lord Newby, leader of the Liberal Democrats in the House of LordsI don’t consider myself to be part of some Westminster elite.
Lord Newby also recently moved back to the region, to Ripon with his wife Ailsa, the canon of the local cathedral.
“I don’t consider myself to be part of some Westminster elite,” he says.
“My roots are in a part of the country that we’ve described.
“My grandfather was a miner, so that doesn’t wash with me.”
He defends the role of the Lords in attempting to influence the terms of Brexit, which was very much a people’s revolt.
“We would like an elected House of Lords but leaving that aside, what seems to me doesn’t wash as an argument is to say we have a constitution, and when bits of it say something which we personally don’t like we say that that part of the constitution should be scrapped,” he says.
The former civil servant does not bat away the idea that pro-EU politicians are getting more organised, admitting “there are a lot of conversations going on about Brexit”.
And he thinks the size of the Lords defeats for the Government has given potential rebel Tory MPs the strength to back staying in the customs union and deal a significant blow to the Prime Minister’s strategy and authority.
Mrs May has said she wants to leave the customs union to allow Britain to strike free trade deals with the rest of the world.
But Lord Newby says there is an increasing realisation as negotiations falter that leaving the bloc is “bad for the economy and potentially fatal for the Northern Ireland peace process”.
“If you look at the number of Tory rebels (in the Lords), 24, and a lot of Tory abstentions, if the vote had been six months ago I’m not sure there would have been so many, things move,” he says.
“When you’ve got former Tory Cabinet Ministers and other Ministers like Chris Patten and David Willetts, who’s very highly regarded, it demonstrates that it’s not just a group of Europhile Lib Dems who are doing this, this is a broad, broad coalition.
“Every former Cabinet Secretary voted that way, three heads of the Foreign Office, these are people who have given their lives to public service and they think this is important.”
Despite the likely prospect of rebellion in the Commons, ultimately Labour and the Tories back Brexit, which could prove crucial when it comes to the crunch decisions.
With both main parties veering left and right, and the Lib Dems decimated with just 12 MPs, there has been much talk of joining forces with pro-EU Labour and Tory rebels to form a new centrist party.
But Lord Newby, the former chief executive of the unsuccessful breakaway SDP of the 1980s, said that party was actually in a better position than centrists now.
“it’s part of our approach to politics that we are collaborative, so if other entities appear which share many of our views we’ll work with them,” he says.
“I think the situation though, although there are similarities, there are some big differences.
“The key one is in 1981 the SDP had four credible national leaders all of whom had been Cabinet Ministers and appealed to slightly different people.
“People who liked Shirley Williams didn’t necessarily like Roy Jenkins, but we had this collective, the Gang of Four were amongst the four most attractive politicians in the country.
“Polling showed that if the SDP were formed it would get 36% support, it didn’t quite, but if you do polling now and say there is a possibility of a breakout from the Labour Party, what level support is this going to get? I don’t know what it would show but it wouldn’t show that.”
With five more days of votes on the EU (Withdrawal) Bill to go, Lord Newby will need all the energy he can muster to corral peers through the lobbies, which is where Yorkshire helps.
“We’ve got a lovely house just next to the cathedral, a duck has built a nest on a wall a few yards from our bedroom window, we’ve got great tits nesting in other parts of the garden.
“You know, this is lovely and a terrific way of recovering from weeks spent at the coalface here.”
Farron row cost Lib Dems votes
The row over former Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron’s views on gay sex cost the party dearly at last year’s snap election, Lord Newby says.
Mr Farron quit after just 12 Lib Dems won seats in the Commons last June.
Lord Newby, a former whip who has the air of a tactician, says: “We shot ourselves in the foot.
“I think the problems Tim Farron got himself into on homosexuality lost us two core groups of people who were minded and were beginning to move in our direction, who were all pro-European, but they were young and they were from the LGBT community.
“Overnight we lost a lot of those people and we couldn’t get them back.”