Lords reform

Kiran Stacey

House of LordsTory backbenchers probably thought that when they ganged together to thwart attempts to make the Lords mostly elected last year, they had got rid of what they saw as a “constitutional threat” for the foreseeable future.

But conversations I have had in recent days with senior Liberal Democrats suggest there is a scenario under which the plans could be resurrected.

Officials close to Nick Clegg have told me that if there was a hung parliament at the next election and a deal with the Conservatives was the most likely outcome, this would give them an opening to insist that the plans were put back on the table. 

Kiran Stacey

Nick CleggNick Clegg yesterday exacted the price his ministers and advisers had long warned would be paid for the Tories scuppering Lord reform: the Lib Dem leader in turn killed off the boundary changes, which are important to his coalition partners’ chances of a 2015 majority.

Most Westminster watchers saw it for what it was: a piece of tit-for-tat politics that was not particularly edifying, but probably important for the Lib Dems to show they were willing to use their muscle to get what they want.

Clegg attempted to appeal to principle when giving his rationale for the move yesterday. He said:

Lords reform and boundaries are two, separate parliamentary bills but they are both part of a package of overall political reform. Delivering one but not the other would create an imbalance – not just in the Coalition Agreement, but also in our political system.

 

Kiran Stacey

The last session of PMQs before recess today felt, in the words of one Twitter wit, like an “end of season clip show”. Both leaders played their greatest hits as they tried to buoy their troops ahead of the long break and remind the wider public of how they view each other.

For Ed Miliband, this was about tying in last night’s rebellion on House of Lords reform with the problems he’s had over the last few months with the Budget and the economy. The linking device wasn’t subtle (“House of Lords reform isn’t his main problem….”), but the attacks were effective, if not new.

We heard about the “tax cut for millionaires” (the end of the 50p top rate of income tax), paid for by a “tax on pensioners” (the end of preferential tax rates for pensioners), and to cap it all of, the “double-dip recession made in Downing Street”. 

Kiran Stacey

House of LordsMany 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. 

Kiran Stacey

Members of the House of LordsAfter weeks of shadow boxing, ministers are finally publishing their proposals on reforming the House of Lords today. They include an 80 per cent elected chamber, filled with 450 part-time “senators”, elected by regional list.

Tory backbenchers are already up in arms, threatening rebellion and, in the case of some ministerial aides, resignation. Conor Burns, PPS to Owen Paterson, said this morning:

If I lose my job for something that was a mainstream view within the Conservative party within the last parliament, which serving cabinet ministers held as their view, so be it.

 

Jim Pickard

The House of Lords authorities are refusing to hand over officials’ estimates of how much it will cost taxpayers to replace the chamber with a mostly elected senate, prompting anger from Tory politicians.

Officials have rejected a freedom of information request by the Financial Times, saying that the relevant information was produced “solely” for the joint committee on Lords reform. “A decision was taken by them not to publish it as part of their report,” they said in their response.

David Davis, MP for Haltemprice and Howden, said there was a “clear-cut case” for the cost estimates to be put in the public domain.

There is a very clear argument for this,” said the influential former frontbencher. “It will be very hard for them to refuse to do it.” Mr David predicted that the question would be put to Nick Clegg: “What’s he going to say? ‘We don’t know?’ He can’t do that can he?

Another Tory MP told the FT: “This is a genuine public issue how can we reach a decision about its merits when we have no cost-benefit analysis?

The issue comes to a head on Wednesday when Lords reform is part of the Queen’s speech setting out the legislative programme for the forthcoming parliamentary 

Jim Pickard

Lords reform is widely seen as a hobbyhorse of Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats –yet it is a Tory minister whose task is to push through the legislation to transform parliament’s upper house.

Indeed, aides to Mr Clegg have jokingly referred to it as “the Mark Harper bill” in their attempts to downplay the idea that the deputy prime minister is obsessedby removing the unelected peers.

Mr Harper has a delicate task in front of him; steering through a full shake-up of the Lords which has evaded other politicians for a century.

A press officer warns the FT that the minister keeps his office at a low temperature: but this habit may not prepare him for the frosty reception he will face in parliament during next year’s legislative marathon.

Peers and MPs of all parties have already lined up to oppose the bill. Even if it passes through the Commons without mishap it is likely to be ambushed by the combined forces of Tory, Labour, and even some Lib Dem peers.

There could be a repeat of the filibustering and all-night sittings dominated the Lords in the spring of 2011 over the alternative vote bill.

Nick Clegg has threatened to use the Parliament Act to force it through, but weeks of debate are expected, taking up large amounts of next year’s political calendar.

Mr Harper tells the FT that bill should not take up a “disproportionate” amount of time: but warns potential trouble-makers:

I don’t think the public would understand if people told the public they don’t care hugely about this legislation but then let it (in-fighting) damage the rest of the programme,” he says.

Even David Cameron once said he saw Lords reform as a “third term issue”, implying it was a very low priority. But Mr Harper says the prime minister is fully signed up to the 

Kiran Stacey

The most interesting thing about today’s session of prime minister’s questions was not the contest between Nick Clegg and Harriet Harman (although Harman was, as always, an impressive stand-in, and Clegg did better than he previously has), but the reaction of Tory backbenchers, who were given their chance to put the deputy PM on the spot.

Clegg always struggles a bit in PMQs, partly through no fault of his own – his parliamentary party is simply not big enough to give him loud support against the heckles of Labour and the silence of many of the Tories who enjoy seeing him squirm.

But things were even worse today. Not only did his coalition colleagues fail to lend him their vocal support, but several of them openly tried to attack or embarrass him. 

Kiran Stacey

House of LordsThe 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: