Grumblings of discontent were heard along House of Lords corridors today as Labour and Lib Dem peers accused the coalition of rushing through legislation on the controversial police and crime commissioners with a cunning timetabling ploy.
Following the derailing of the bill by Lib Dem peers in May, the government has now provoked fresh displeasure by tabling the parliamentary ping pong – where the bill is batted back and forth between the two houses – for next Wednesday, the same day that the legislation on fixed term parliaments is also due to be debated.
Labour Lords in particular complained that it was extremely unusual for two such major bills to be scheduled so close together, and are accusing the coalition of what they have diagnosed as a “political stitch-up”. The idea, they say, is to get the contentious police reform package through parliament before Nick Clegg has to face any gip on the subject from Lib Dem party members at their conference, which starts the following Saturday.
The “help Nick” strategy – which would get the bill sealed as a fait accompli before Lib Dems can make any more public criticisms of it – would help the deputy prime minister face off at least one potential conference challenge, leaving him free to concentrate on defending the even less popular NHS reforms.
Even if the plan does work out, however, the government still has plenty of problems to iron out before the future of the commissioners is secured.
As the Guardian reported yesterday, some of the Lib Dem Lords who initially opposed the bill now look set to let it pass, following a delay on the election of commissioners until after the Olympics. But Ed Miliband attacked this compromise in PMQs today, arguing that the £25m extra cost of holding polls in November, rather than alongside existing elections in May, was “making a bad policy worse by wasting money”.
David Cameron, in turn, accused Mr Miliband of a U-turn, and asked why he was “frightened” of direct elections to make the police accountable.
But with shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper warning the US-style commissioners would introduce “40 more Boris Johnsons” to the UK policing system, the government may need more than fancy scheduling to get this through in time.
Helen Warrell is the FT’s UK news reporter