News, Culture & Society

QUENTIN LETTS: Welcome to the House of has-beens

Lord Mandelson thought Brexit was ‘vandalistic’ and said ‘everyone’ in Davos last week – my dears – had been appalled by it

Who was that vaguely familiar figure on the Labour front bench at the start of the two-day House of Lords debate on Brexit? Good grief, it was Lord Goldsmith, the lawyer who let Tony Blair march us off to the Iraq War. Goldsmith! How does he fit into the Corbyn era?

 Goldsmith! How does he fit into the Corbyn era?

We were told he had been readmitted to the Labour Lords front bench only for the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill. But could Labour really not find someone with a stronger record of advice on foreign policy?

Welcome to the House of Has-Beens, the world of walking ghosts, busybody ancients who under our daft arrangements retain an oar in our public affairs even though they long ago left the elected legislature.

One quivering old fool called for the Brexit referendum (biggest vote in our country’s history) to be ignored by the immensely more sophisticated denizens of the Palace of Westminster. 

This peer was Terry Higgins, once a middle-ranking Tory MP, now the Rt Hon Lord Higgins KBE DL. I always wondered how such a Private Godfrey made it into the Lords.

Now the reason was clear: He was a pro-Brussels zealot. Referenda were ‘not the right approach,’ he quavered like a Reform Club bore complaining to the steward about an iffy baked egg. 

‘We as a Parliament have to reassert our position,’ he continued – and that meant telling Johnny Voter to bog off and leave politics to the grown-ups. ‘Hear hear’ harrumphed his neighbour, Lord Cormack.

Lord Higgins had spent a lot of his time in Holland, he added, and they were thinking of a new law banning referenda. British parliamentarians should follow suit, he believed.

The day had begun with a prosaic precis of the Bill from the Leader of the House, Lady Evans. She has all the panache of an under-manageress at Freeman Hardy Willis but she is at least reasonably crisp.

The Chamber was initially packed, some peers being forced to stand by the doors and sit under the Throne. Lord Palumbo (Con) was there. 

He hasn’t spoken in the Lords since a blurted few words in 2013. Ex-judge Lord Hoffmann was on the Crossbenches. Last time he contributed to proceedings was 2010.

On the Labour benches we had infamous expenses fiddler Lady Uddin, former Blairite hard-man Lord (John) Reid and Lord Davies of Stamford, almost unrecognisable now that he has let his inky black hair go grey.

Was that architect Lord (Richard) Rogers? Jeepers. As rare a visitor as the snow leopard.

Remainer Lord Adonis (Lab), putting an amendment, quoted a minister who had said peers seemed to think ‘their view is much more important than that of common oiks’. This won a ripple of agreement. Yes, they really were saying they were more important than hoi polloi!

The debate was not all Remoaners. One of the most punchy speeches came from former Brexit minister Lord Bridges 

The debate was not all Remoaners. One of the most punchy speeches came from former Brexit minister Lord Bridges 

The Lib Dem benches were bursting with their 100 peers. They included former panto dame Ronnie Fearn, Israel-basher Jenny Tonge, sometime Heseltine Tory Hugh Dykes (he seemed to be asleep) and an obscure ex-MP called Brian Cotter who is grey as a squirrel. 

A complete and utter Brian. In all the years he was in the Commons, I don’t think I took a single note of anything he said.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire (Lib Dem) took a swipe at ‘unelected Daily Mail journalists’. Aaargh! Nurse, I’ve been hit! But Lord Wallace, who was given France’s Legion d’Honneur for puffing the EU, has himself not been elected and unlike him, darn it, I cannot charge the taxpayer big wonga for my eructations.

Lord Pearson (Ukip) tried boldly to stick it up the EU but was laughed at by Labour and Lib Dems.

Pro-EU Lord Rooker (Lab) gave what sounded like a hint that he might leave his party if it does not become more Europhile.

Former Foreign Office pooh-bah Lord Hannay looked down his half-moon spectacles with buttery satisfaction as the likes of Peter Mandelson and Lib Dems leader Lord Newby predicted national disaster from Brexit.

They were trying to sow doubt that we will ever leave. Yet the Labour leader, Lady Smith, said she was not interested in a second referendum.

Lord Mandelson thought Brexit was ‘vandalistic’ and said ‘everyone’ in Davos last week – my dears – had been appalled by it.

He was talking about that World Economic Forum fandango in the Swiss Alps attended by billionaires, failed world leaders, lobbyists, lawyers and Sir Elton John. Peter’s friends.

Indian beer tycoon Lord Bilimoria also wailed that the Davos crowd felt Brexit had damaged our national standing.

Bilimoria is a name-dropper. He told the House (polish of fingernails) that he was an alumnus of Harvard Business School, that he had been standing next to the prime minister of India the other day, and that a friend of his who is a ‘world expert’ had compared ‘wretched’ Brexit to the events leading up to the First World War. 

‘It is not too late to stop’ Brexit, he cried.

Meanwhile, Lord Krebs (Crossbencher) offered an emotive tale of a German aunt of his who had spoken of Brexit as something akin to the state of Nazi Germany in 1945.

Krebs is a scientist. Let’s hope he looks at his test tubes with greater objectivity. The Bishop of Leeds, in classic vicarish voice, denounced the ‘demonisation’ and the ‘denigration and vilification’ that had entered politics since the Leave vote. He blamed the media.

But might that anger not flow from the country seeing its parliamentarians trying to block their express instruction to get us out of the EU?

The debate was not all Remoaners. One of the most punchy speeches came from former Brexit minister Lord Bridges, who firmly told Theresa May to stop dithering and get on with things one way or another.

Brexit-supporting peer Viscount Ridley (Con) flashed the bat wonderfully, calling the Lords ‘this gilded, crimson echo-chamber of Remain, this neo-Jacobite hold-out for the Euro-king across the water’. If peers tried to muck about with Brexit, the public’s reaction would be ‘severe’. Lord Cormack grumbled at that.

Former Tory Cabinet minister Lord (Ian) Lang said that although he had voted Remain, he now looked forward to the term ‘law of the land’ actually meaning something (ie, once we make those laws here rather than being given them by Brussels).

And House Of Cards writer Lord Dobbs (Con) said that if peers persisted in trying to block ‘the people’s Brexit’, it would not be long before the tumbrils rolled. 


Find local lawyers and law firms at