The comments by Lord Lee in today’s FT are quite extraordinary. The Lib Dem peer opposes the coalition’s plan to reform the House of Lords to such an extent that he has threatened to quit his role as a Lords whip if it pushes ahead. He said:
There is absolutely no public demand for this at all, and pretty much zero support from serious political commentators.
He added that the coalition faced a “long, bitter and bloody battle” if it pressed ahead.
Lord Lee is not alone: we have now learned that 14 Lib Dem peers wrote a letter last year to the party leader outlining their opposition to his plans for an 80 per cent elected chamber.
In the letter, the 14 said:
We do not believe there is any real demand from the public for a second elected House, and we would lose the expertise currently therein.
They also attacked the official Lib Dem argument that House of Lords refom has cross-party support because it appeared in all three party manifestos in 2010. They said:
We do not accept that the presence of somewhat different wording in all three party manifestos is an adequate basis for scrapping the House of Lords and replacing it with an elected Chamber.
And they issued an ominous warning for the Lib Dem leader:
We know there remains sufficient determined opposition in all parties in both Houses to gum up completely the legislative programme of the coalition government as happened with the reform attempts of the Wilson government.
If Clegg is struggling to get his own party to sign up to what is in effect a 100-year-old Liberal dream, he is likely to face an even tougher time getting this legislation enacted that we expected.
The general hostility in the Lords to the proposals was evident in the tone of the questioning faced by Clegg and Mark Harper, the junior constitutional minister, from the joint committee on Lords reform yesterday.
Lord Trimble summed up the feeling of many of the peers on the committee when he said that giving members of the reformed house 15-year terms without the chance of re-election meant:
We are creating a mechanism for irresponsibility in the second house.
Later in the meeting, Clegg suggested using the nuclear tactic to get the measures passed: using the Parliament Act to override the will of the upper chamber. But there remain two key problems: 1) the Commons may still vote against; and 2) using the Parliament Act is hardly “wrapping the bill in stealth technology to make sure it passes under the radar”, as is being advocated by his aides.