The Daily Mail was characteristically measured in its reaction to Tuesday’s parliamentary vote in which peers backed an amendment obliging Britain to remain inside the European Economic Area post-Brexit. The vote, the Mail wrote, was “one of the greatest constitutional scandals of the post-war years”, further evidence that these traitorous “passengers on the EU gravy train” despise the will of the British people. One peer thus shamed was arch-Europhile Andrew Adonis, referred to flatteringly as an “egghead” who “loathe(s) democracy”. The Mail then performed a U-turn on its erstwhile stance, coming out in favour of a full-blooded overhaul of the Lords – a position which is actually shared by Lord Adonis.
“There are two options: one is to have a directly elected second chamber”, which he explains he has “always been in favour of”. The alternative would be to have a “federal second chamber like the German Bundesrat, which represents the states and the parliaments of the regions of Germany”. This would only occur in the event of greater devolution and federalisation within the UK, something which he believes may happen in 10-15 years’ time.
It seems odd that the man at the top of the Daily Mail’s most-hated peers list actually agrees with it on parliamentary reform; but then again, this is the strange world of post-Brexit politics, and Lord Adonis is highly sceptical about the newspaper’s motives. “It’s interesting because the Mail isn’t just calling for the reform of the Lords – it wants to abolish it; the reason it wants abolition is that they are standing in the way of Brexit. But what’s amusing is that surely this whole Brexit thing was supposed to be about reclaiming parliament’s stolen sovereignty? It turns out it’s only about reclaiming parliament’s stolen sovereignty until parliament does something the Daily Mail disapproves of.” With tongue-in-cheek, he suggests that “presumably if the House of Commons votes against May’s treaty in October, they’re going to want to abolish the Commons as well! So perhaps we’re not going to end up with many political institutions left, apart from the Daily Mail itself, which is going to decide what happens without needing to bother with MPs or Peers.”
Leaving this hypothetical to one side, Lord Adonis then admits that he cannot think of a single good argument for leaving the EU. “Because all of the arguments that are put in favour of Brexit, insofar as they pertain to real grievances, which are genuine – poverty, lack of opportunity, the isolation of large parts of England – have virtually nothing whatsoever to do with the EU, and a huge amount to do with the government of the UK. So even insofar as they are problems that need to be addressed, the problems aren’t capable of being addressed, or have no relationship whatsoever with the EU.”
We move on to the issue of social justice, especially pertinent in the wake of Cambridge headlines showing that Oxbridge students disproportionately hail from a small number of South-Eastern schools. A former Minister of State for Education, he recently floated the suggestion of a ‘minister for good schools’ to redress the social imbalance. I ask what the priorities for such a minister would be. “The first requirement is to raise educational standards in the poorer areas of England, particularly the cities of the midlands, the north and coastal towns. That needs to be done in the same way London schools were improved after 1997 with a minister for London schools.” He held such a position himself for five years under New Labour, and recalls how he spent “two days a week going around individual schools working out how to raise standards, closing failing schools, re-founding them as academies and finding good sponsors for them.” Regional disparity is clearly a bugbear for him. “We need a whole set of initiatives and investment in schools in poorer areas which just aren’t delivering anything like the same standards that are being achieved in London and the South-East. Now, if we get that right, one of the consequences I think will be more applications from schools which don’t have strong university traditions, let alone Oxbridge traditions, who will send their best students to university and hopefully to the best universities. So, I think that over time it could significantly improve levels of application to Cambridge. But it’s going to take a while.”
Inevitably, we come to the role of young people in the Brexit process. Having found new fame as one of the country’s most publicised anti-Brexiters, I’m interested to know what he thinks young people who oppose Brexit ought to be doing. “Lobby (your) members of parliament for a ‘People’s Vote’, for a referendum specifically on the Brexit terms with the other option being to stay in the EU.” The ‘People’s Vote’ refers to the recently launched campaign for a referendum on the final Brexit deal. But surely, with leaving-day set for the end of March 2019, there is no chance of this actually happening? He disagrees. “I think it’s perfectly realistic that there could be another vote before March 29. It’s also possible that the Article 50 period for negotiating withdrawal could be extended beyond next March, which would also enable a referendum to be held before we’ve left.” Startlingly, he puts the chance of a second referendum occurring at “almost half”. The reason being that “Theresa May doesn’t have a majority in the House of Commons. [Brexiters]… are so adamant that parliament shouldn’t play any role whatsoever in the process of agreeing the treaty. Why? Because they see a real danger that parliament acting constitutionally might put a spanner in the works. So, their argument now is that democracy essentially ended on June 23 2016, and that we have no right to play any further role in the democratic processes of the UK. That’s obviously a nonsensical proposition, and it’s being exposed in that way. That’s why I think the chances of us not leaving are quite high.” Interestingly, the Mail dismisses the argument that the House of Lords are merely fulfilling their constitutional role as a “cynical sham”. But my lasting impression is that such criticism is unlikely to deter Lord Adonis.