DEATH by a thousand cuts was a peculiarly sadistic form of execution practised in China as recently as the early years of the 20th century.

Slicing off small pieces of the body not only prolonged the agony, it was intended to destroy the spirit. This rather aptly describes what is happening to the EU Withdrawal Bill in Parliament, though it might be better called death by a thousand peers.

The House of Lords has been slicing quietly away at the body of this bill, passing a raft of amendments, which don’t contradict the principle of EU withdrawal but pick away relentlessly at the spirit of Brexit. They’ve inflicted seven defeats so far, on issues such as the right of asylum seekers’ families, retaining the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights and remaining in a (not “the”) customs union after Brexit.

The most significant defeat for Theresa May’s Government came this week when the Lords passed a motion that would effectively prevent her walking away from negotiations next year if the deal is rejected by MPs. It might be called the Cliff Edge (avoidance of) Amendment.

Brexit: Theresa May promises 'robust' response to Lords defeats

Admittedly, the optics are not great. Here is the unelected House of Lords, apparently undermining the democratic wishes of the British people. Certain newspapers have condemned “a Remainer elite in cahoots with Brussels” fighting a guerilla war against Brexit. “I think their lordships are playing with fire”, said the Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg, talking like a gangster in the Long Good Friday, “ and it would be a shame to burn down a historic house”. This curiously puts the arch right-winger in cahoots with the Scottish National Party, which has always refused to send representatives to the Lords.

And far be it for me to defend this den of patronage and ermined privilege. There is a tendency on the Left to applaud the Lords when it goes against the Tory Government, but to attack it whenever peers say things the Left disapproves of, like defending freedom of speech. However, I think Brexit shows that there is a role in the legislative process for a revising or “think twice” chamber, composed of experienced politicians who aren’t frightened of the government whips or obsessed with the day-to-day preoccupations of the media.

Lords amendments aren’t binding legislation and can be overturned in the Commons simply by MPs voting them down. But Parliament needs people who are able to point out when MPs in the Commons are making complete asses of themselves. It’s just unfortunate that peers are appointed by the parties and not elected.

The latest defeat, which has so outraged Number 10, basically tells MPs to do their jobs. The amendment says that, if the Commons rejects the final deal on Brexit, the Government should return to the negotiating chamber to get a better deal.

This prevents Mrs May from walking out of the EU negotiations in a huff and refusing to sign any deal at all, as some Tories like Mr Rees-Mogg want. Far from this “binding the Government’s hands” or “weakening our negotiating position with Europe”, as claimed by Tory ministers, this is plain common sense. No one in their right minds thinks Britain should leave the EU without any trading agreement at all.

Brexit: Theresa May promises 'robust' response to Lords defeats

It would be chaos. There would be 30-mile queues of lorries at Dover; Japanese car firms would leave overnight; and there would be border posts in Ireland the next morning. These are things that the UK Government has repeatedly promised would never be allowed to happen. Mrs May has always said that Britain will negotiate a “frictionless” trading arrangement with Brussels that will ensure equal access to EU markets for British goods and will guarantee that Ireland remains border-free. So cliff-edge or “clean” Brexit is not only daft, it is incompatible with the express policy of the British Government.

Someone has to have the smeddum to say this, and challenge the punk Brexiters on the Tory benches who seem to think that mutually assured destruction is preferable to rational compromise. Unfortunately, Her Majesty’s Opposition in the Commons has been incapable of doing this job. Terrified of Brexit voters, Labour has preferred to hide under the duvet and pretend it isn’t happening. Yet there is a clear majority in both houses of parliament against hard Brexit which simply requires someone to lead it.

Now the Lords have made a stand, it is up to Labour MPs to show that they have the bottle to stand with them. Mrs May, a Remainer, should really be up there with them, but she’s held hostage by Brextreemists like Liam Fox, the International Trade Secretary, who told the BBC yesterday that Britain would never join “any” form of customs union.

He said that Britain had voted to leave the single market and the customs union, which isn’t true. It is quite possible to leave the EU and remain in the single market, like Norway, or remain in the customs union, like Turkey. The EU referendum said nothing about post-Brexit trading arrangements, and Brexiters like Boris Johnson famously said that Britain could remain in the single market.

Brexit: Theresa May promises 'robust' response to Lords defeats

Of course, Brexiters say we will gain all the advantages and privileges of being in the single market, and have open borders after we leave the EU, because Brussels will “roll over” and give us whatever we want. This is the “have cake and eat it” strategy, which should properly be called no cake and starve. There is no way that the 27 members of the EU will allow Britain to remain in the club without paying the dues and following the agreed rules. Brussels hasn’t moved an inch on this issue. It can’t because to do so would destroy the EU club itself.

Clean Brexit is a post-imperial fantasy of a clique of reactionary globalists who think that Britain can return to some golden age. They should be sent packing. The British Government came to an agreement in December – a legally-binding agreement – that Britain would remain in “full alignment” with the single market in order to prevent Ireland being re-partitioned. There has to be a settlement on this by next month. The clock is ticking, and the Lords has rung the alarm bell not a moment too soon.