Theresa May was warned on Sunday by Tory peers that she will face a string of parliamentary defeats over Europe in the House of Lords if she tries to “bully” members of the second chamber into backing an extreme form of Brexit.
After 11 Conservative MPs joined opposition parties to inflict a humiliating loss on the government last week, Tory grandees are warning that the spirit of rebellion will spread to the Lords unless May shows she respects parliament and decisively rejects those with “extreme views” in her own party.
Writing in the Observer, two Tory peers, the former pensions minister Ros Altmann and Patience Wheatcroft, a former editor of the Sunday Telegraph, say they are appalled at the insults heaped by hardline Brexiters on MPs who voted with their consciences, and at the “strong-arm” tactics of the Tory whips.
They say it is vital to democracy that parliamentarians be given the right to assess the Brexit deal on behalf of the British people without being threatened or bullied, and suggest that the aggression of Tory party managers has helped create a “toxic atmosphere”, not only in parliament but across the UK.
Altmann and Wheatcroft write: “The resulting appalling insults from Brexiters, calls for expulsion from the party, and even death threats, are worrying symptoms of the toxic atmosphere which has been created in our country.”
They add: “There are many moderate Conservatives in both Houses of Parliament who are deeply concerned that some in our party are so desperate to leave the EU, with or without a deal, that they believe any cost is justified to bring Brexit. They maintain ‘freedom is priceless’ but this extreme view does not reflect public opinion.”
The two peers say Conservative members of the House of Lords, in which there was a large pro-Remain majority, will not take kindly to being told by the Tory whips and the executive what to think about Brexit and how to vote.
“Mindful of the monumental importance for future generations of getting Brexit right, the Lords is unlikely to be receptive to bullying over a restricted timetable or vigorous whipping to toe the party line,” they say.
“The people voted to ‘take back control’ but that has to mean control by parliament, not a small group with extreme views or an executive that will brook no challenge. It is parliament that must have the final say on whether the deal that is negotiated for breaking away from the EU ... is in the UK’s best interests.”
Labour’s former deputy leader Harriet Harman is to raise serious concerns in the Commons on Monday about death threats issued against Tory MPs who rebelled last week. Harman said the atmosphere had been created by a combination of the Brexit debate, social media and pro-Brexit newspapers.
“We have to show that we do not think it is right that people are afraid to vote in parliament for what they think is right because they are afraid they will face death threats,” she said. It was up to everyone with responsibility – including internet service providers – to think about how they can work together to preserve the democratic system.
The Tory MP Sarah Wollaston, one of the 11 Tory rebels, has tweeted that she has received ugly threats and said the Daily Mail, which described the rebels as “self-consumed malcontents” after the vote, should think about the consequences of its actions and tone. “Are you proud?” she asked the Daily Mail. “I’ve also been deluged by the traitors and hanging vibe. Time to get a grip and a sense of proportion before deliberately unleashing all this incitement to violence.”
It comes as a new poll found a majority backing remaining inside the EU. The BMG poll for the Independent found 51% favoured staying in, with 41% backing Brexit. After people who said they did not know were removed, it found 55.5% in favour of Remain and 44.5% for Leave.
The Brexit withdrawal bill will head to the House of Lords in the new year. While peers will not seek to block or delay Brexit, there is a growing view that if the kind of cross-party cooperation that was achieved by opponents of a hard Brexit in the Commons is repeated, they can push the lower house’s change into a series of modifications to the bill.
MPs say the Lords is likely to feel more emboldened to flex its muscles because the government was defeated last week.
The Labour peer Andrew Adonis said last night: “The withdrawal bill will have a nightmare passage through the Lords. We respect the fact that it passed the Commons, so won’t reject the principle of withdrawal.
“Our job is to make withdrawal compatible with the government’s own promises which – even with the latest changes – still aren’t satisfied in respect of a ‘meaningful vote’ on the final terms, ‘no hard border’ in Ireland and the rights of EU citizens in the UK.
“We are facing the biggest conflict in the Lords since Irish Home Rule before the first world war, and the stakes are equally high.”
Another Tory peer, Charles Powell, Margaret Thatcher’s former foreign policy adviser, said he believed division in the Tory party over Europe ran so deep that it was “more or less bound to split at some point”.
He added that there was more support for a second referendum on Brexit in the Lords than the Commons, “and that is one of the things on which you may find a harder push in the Lords”.
“There is even less support in the Lords for Brexit than in the Commons and they will contest all those clauses contested in the Commons, and probably quite a few more. It can hardly not be clear to the Lords that this was in the manifesto and endorsed in a referendum and the case for the non-elected house making an attempt that could be seen as derailing it beyond what the Commons does is not likely to go down well in public opinion.”
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