The government was defeated by just four votes yesterday afternoon in the House of Lords despite peers being threatened with the ultimate sanction: the loss of some of their treasured summer recess.
“The government has been eaten alive in the Lords,” is how one Tory MP put it to me. “It was extraordinary.”
The topic may sound a bit dry. Ministers wanted to refer part of the financial services bill to a grand committee – while allowing peers to debate the (relatively) exciting bits involving the Bank of England in the upper chamber.
But then Lord Hamilton (a former Tory chief whip) laid down an amendment for the bill to remain in the main chamber. A rebellion by nine Tory peers – and abstentions by many others – ensured a defeat of the government by just four votes. (Those not voting included Lady Warsi, Lord Lamont and Lord Lawson.)
The most amusing element of the vignette, however, was the attempt by Tory leader Lord Strathclyde to bend the House to his will:
(4.15pm) Three Parliaments ago, on the initiative of my great predecessor from the Benches opposite, the late Lord Williams of Mostyn, we agreed to make more use of Grand Committee in return for introducing rising times at 10 pm, with the aim of reducing the need to scrutinise legislation long into the night. If the House does not support the Motion we will have more Bills competing for time on the Floor and there will inevitably be repercussions. We would need to sit later into the night to conduct our scrutiny after 10 o’clock and we may need to return even earlier from our Summer Recess.
(4.45pm) Before the House is drawn into the seductive speech of the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, noble Lords should recall that only last week he said that this House should always sit when the House of Commons is sitting. I took a view earlier this year, having taken soundings around the House, that the overwhelming view of your Lordships was not to sit in September. I do not mind sitting in September-I have done it in the past and I shall be here-but noble Lords must recognise that if we do not send Bills to Grand Committee and have them on the Floor of the House, we will need more sitting days of the House in order to complete our business. It is a very simple proposition. No one is suggesting sending another major Bill to the Grand Committee.
There has already been some speculation that the vote could somehow delay the Lords reform bill. But the Labour camp in the Lords say it’s “nonsense” that the events will alter the reform bill timetable:
“Nobody – the Oracle of Delphi included – knows for certain when that bill will get out of the Commons and start at this end – estimates run between mid-October and ‘some point during the early months of next year’,” says my ermined mole.
UPDATE: Incidentally, I’m told that a gathering of anti-Lords reform types this morning was packed to the rafters. The “Reform Not Election” group held a seminar in the Palace of Westminster and more than 50 MPs were there. Downing St is still very concerned about the looming rebellion which could dominate weeks of Parliamentary time later in the year.