Many in Westminster are convinced Lords reform will not go ahead: and for good reason. Tory backbenchers are overwhelmingly opposed, and many have said they will vote against. What’s more, there is next to no chance the proposals will manage to make it through the Lords. What hope then, of the bill ever making it onto the statute book?
Actually, quite a good chance. And this is how it will (probably) happen.
1) The bill will pass the Commons. Although a large rump of Tory backbenchers will defy the whip and vote against, Labour has promised to vote in favour. Even if those in the opposition who are implacably opposed to an elected second chamber defy the Labour whip, there should easily be enough votes from Tory and Labour loyalists, plus all the Lib Dems, to make sure it passes.
2) The bill will not pass the Lords. There is next to no chance of peers voting for measures that will revolutionise their chamber (turkeys, Christmas, etc…). The coalition realises this. The question is, what will they do when it gets sent back to the Commons? As I see it, there are three options:
- Abandon the legislation. This would be seen by the Lib Dems as an absolute betrayal of the spirit of the coalition agreement, and they will in turn rebel over the boundary changes, making a Tory majority much less likely at the next election. The Tory leadership (although not all the backbenchers) want desperately to avoid that happening.
- Offer a referendum as a compromise solution. Tory MPs and peers have told me they will accept this as a way forward: mainly because they think the reforms would not be backed by the public. But Lib Dems know this: one senior party figure told me recently that using a referendum as a so-called “compromise solution” would be viewed as negatively as if the Tories abandoned the legislation entirely. Which means no boundary changes…
- Use the Parliament Act to force it through. Number 10 has already said it is willing to use the Parliament Act to assert the will of the Commons over the Lords. In fact, legislation like this is exactly the kind of situation it is designed for. It will create uproar on the Tory benches, but Cameron knows pretty much nothing else will persuade his coalition colleagues to support boundary changes.
All of this makes number three the most likely option, as far as I can see. The only unknown is whether David Cameron is sufficiently spooked by the increasing assertiveness of his own rebellious backbenchers that he is willing to compromise the chances of a Tory majority at the next election to avoid angering them.