Prospect: After Brexit, this will be the next big political drama

This article was first published in Prospect Magazine.

In last month’s general election, the country voted overwhelmingly for Brexit. In doing so, voters steered well clear of the Brexit Party. That is why, a few days before election day, Nigel Farage announced that it would soon seamlessly morph into something entirely new, to be called the Reform Party.

Farage has removed his Eurosceptic flag from Brussels and is planting the flag of his latest anti-establishment punt slap-bang in the middle of the British establishment itself: the House of Lords.

The red benches, and the doddery folk who sit on them, are perhaps not where you would have expected the nation to begin focussing its attention as Brexit day looms. Nonetheless, other party leaders have since joined Farage in addressing the Lords’ future, catapulting the issue to the forefront of British politics.

Boris Johnson is reportedly weighing up the Lord Salisbury proposals to transform the upper chamber into a ‘House of Regions,’ giving Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and northern England greater parliamentary representation and, crucially, scrapping the current system of unelected patronage.

Never ones to let a bandwagon pass by without leaping aboard, Labour has also decided to get in on the act. Rebecca Long-Bailey, who remains the most likely victor in the party’s leadership contest, came out of nowhere all guns blazing to declare that the Lords should be abolished and replaced with an elected Senate.

In the latest development in this exciting new saga, the government has decided to use the Lords as the headline act in its mission to show the constituencies formerly known as “the red wall” that it is very grateful indeed for their votes. The proposal is that the upper house should be moved out of London altogether—with York and Birmingham the two leading candidate cities for its relocation.

In a bizarre twist, Jeremy Corbyn, who is now well over a month into—and around a quarter of the way through—his resignation, has waded into the debate by propelling his former chief of staff Karie Murphy (who is drowning in allegations of mishandling anti-Semitism cases and whose role is likely to be scrutinised as part of the EHRC’s investigation of her party) and former Commons Speaker John Bercow (who used to be a Conservative MP) onto the red benches with life peerages.

This could prove problematic for the next Labour leader. As Corbyn was, they will be faced with the dilemma of having to reconcile their party’s staunch Europhilia (in which we all bow down to the noble and heroic Baron Bercow of Buckingham) with its radical leftism (in which we eat the Lords and burn down their House).

Irrespective of Corbyn’s I-don’t-care-any-more cavalier attitude to his continuing powers as Leader of the Opposition, the phenomenon of politicians from all stripes self-assuredly striding into the Lords debate and offering their opinions is bizarrely reminiscent of 2015, when everyone began to talk either very hopefully or very cynically about the EU.

That was the warning rumble before the earthquake that followed. Now, like the masochists that we are, we have begun preparing for the next round of mass self-flagellation by drawing the battle lines for a whole new national existential crisis.

Across the political divide, it is clear that there is a great deal of appetite for changing the way the House of Lords works, just as there was a widespread desire to alter the nature of our relationship with the EU a few years ago—hence David Cameron’s jaunty backpacking trip across Europe before the launch of the Remain campaign. But while there appears to be a consensus that change is needed in the upper chamber, these latest pronouncements show that dividing lines are beginning to emerge over what sort of change.

Discernible ideological camps will soon take shape around this issue, precisely as they did with Brexit. Like our EU membership, the House of Lords is a woefully under-discussed institution and a fundamental component of our democracy that no one except Esther Webber fully understands. It has been angrily bubbling away beneath the surface for some time now, unable to truly capture political imaginations because more pressing issues always took precedence.

The House of Lords is going to become the defining feature of the next micro-era of British politics. It cuts to the heart of what we want our democracy to look like. The worldviews it will inspire and bedfellows it will make will have to contend with the raw wounds of the recent Brexit political re-alignments.

Will democracy enthusiast Farage this time find himself on the same side as the Labour establishment, against the Conservatives? Could this be the issue to whisk away those Brexit-obsessed Corbyn-phobic northern and midlands voters from Boris? It is impossible to say exactly what shape this national debate will take so early on. But one thing we do know is that, much like the intricacies of European trade policy, the House of Lords will soon be an issue about which everyone thinks they know much more than they really do yet will happily adopt unshakeable and heartfelt opinions on it. The days of #FBPE are over. New hashtags are on the way.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t have much on for the rest of the year. There are a couple of trade agreements to be negotiated here and there but apart from that, the calendar is looking fairly sparse. This might just be the perfect time to take a run-up and tackle head-on this mammoth of a constitutional issue over which we have been procrastinating for far too long.

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