Government retreats on House of Lords reform
GOVERNMENT plans to reform the House of Lords were in disarray on Tuesday night, after the coalition was forced into a climbdown by the threat of rebellion from up to 100 Conservative MPs.
The MPs had been expected to defy the government and oppose its plan to limit the time available for debating proposals for a mainly elected second chamber of parliament. The government wanted to limit debating time so the controversial bill was not “talked out” by opponents, where debate takes so long it does not go to a vote and therefore cannot be passed.
The decision to abandon the bid to limit debate saved David Cameron from the coalition’s first defeat in the Commons, but it is expected to place unprecedented strain on the relationship between the Tories and the Liberal
Reform of the Upper Chamber is the key Lib Dem priority, following the party’s defeat on AV voting for Westminster elections last year.
Announcing the decision to drop the “programme motion” scheduled for Tuesday evening, the Leader of the Commons, Sir George Young, blamed Labour for siding with up to 100 Tory rebels and said a new timetable would now be put forward in the autumn.
The decision, which delighted Tory backbenchers, raises the prospect that House of Lords reform will be kicked into the long grass. Tory MP Jesse Norman, who co-ordinated the rebellion, told the BBC: “The bill is a dead duck. The question is how long will the government go on before it recognises that.”
Bernard Jenkin, a leading opponent of the reforms, also questioned the future of the legislation.
He said: “Whatever moral authority the bill had, it has now lost. The authority of the coalition will be undermined if it proceeds with a bill which it is unable to obtain.”
Addressing the Commons shortly before Sir George’s announcement, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg warned MPs the legislation was unlikely to reach the statute book without some sort of limit on debating time.
“My own view, and I’ve always been very open about it, is that a bill of this complexity and self-evident controversy – at least in this place – is unlikely to progress without it being properly timetabled in one shape or form,” said the Lib Dem leader.
Mr Clegg said Labour should not rely on “procedural obfuscation” to wreck the legislation when the party claimed to support the principle of a democratic second chamber.
A Liberal Democrat source said Mr Clegg and the Prime Minister discussed the issue throughout the day, with Mr Cameron arguing that he needed more time to win support from his own party for the
proposed reforms as well as for the timetabling measures needed to get it through parliament.
The source played down the prospect of any concessions to opponents of the reform proposals, saying: “The idea is to win votes here, not to change the
Mr Cameron’s official spokesman said: “The government believes we should be reforming the House of Lords. We have
always said it is important to proceed on the basis of consensus, and that is what we will seek to do.”
But angry Lib Dems warned now it would be difficult for Tories to get through bills they want.
One senior Lib Dem told The Scotsman: “This will not bring down the coalition but if [the Tories] aren’t willing to give us something then they are going to struggle to get us to agree to some of their right-wing ideas.”
There was also irritation among the Lib Dems that the Tory whips had failed to try to force their MPs to toe the line and back the bill.
The announcement in the Commons came just hours after Mr Cameron issued a last-ditch appeal to Labour leader Ed Miliband to rethink his plans to vote with the rebels.
Mr Cameron said he still expected to achieve “a very large majority” in the Commons on the principle of the bill, which would create a 450-member Upper House of 80 per cent elected members serving single 15-year terms.
“I think that’s absolutely vital and that will be a big step forward,” he said.
He added: “I think it is time that we reformed the House of Lords. It has got up to 900 people, there are still people there who are there because their ancestors were given a peerage decades ago. It is ripe for reform. It does need to take place.”
Sir George said the government would produce a new timetable for the bill when MPs return from the summer recess.
He told the Commons: “For Lords reform to progress, it needs those that support reform to vote for reform and to vote for that reform to make progress through this House.
“It is clear that the Opposition are not prepared to do that, so we will not move the programme motion tonight.”
Tory backbenchers Nadhim Zahawi and Julian Lewis, who were set to rebel on the timetable motion, waved their order papers as Sir George made his announcement.
The Leader of the House continued: “We remain committed to making progress on Lords reform and with second reading behind us we will then consider how best to take this agenda forward and how best to secure progress through the House for reforms that have the backing of this House.”
Shadow Commons leader Angela Eagle said Labour was committed to an elected second chamber but hailed the government’s climbdown as a “victory for parliament”.
Ms Eagle went on: “I cannot for the life of me see why the people of Birmingham and Bristol got to vote in a referendum on an elected mayor, but when it comes to an elected second chamber they are to be deprived of a vote.”
Ms Eagle said introducing elected peers would mean more powers would be transferred to the Lords.
“This is uncharted territory,” she said. “It doesn’t mean that we should run away from reform but we cannot simply cross our fingers and hope that these issues will some how be miraculously resolved.”
Shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan insisted the manouvres by Labour were “not intended as a wrecking motion”.
However, despite the concession the government saw one resignation over the Lords on Tuesday night by Bournemouth West MP Conor Burns, who stepped down as a parliamentary private secretary to Northern Ireland Secretary Owen Paterson.
The former private secretary to Margaret Thatcher who previously vowed to oppose the government’s Lords reforms, said he believed “strongly and on principle” in a fully-appointed second chamber and said he would rebel when MPs went through the voting lobbies on Tuesday night. Speaking as the Commons debated the second reading of Lords Reform Bill, he added: “What an Alice in Wonderland world we now live in, that by voting for something that’s been a mainstream view in this party for decades, indeed generations, now leads to incompatibility with serving in the government.”
He claimed he “bitterly”
regretted voting against the government, claiming: “I support the Prime Minister and I support what the government is trying to do.”
In a passionate speech cheered by fellow rebels, Mr Burns said he “genuinely regretted” he would no longer be able to contribute to the government’s work in Northern Ireland.
“As someone who was born in north Belfast and spent the early part of my years there, as someone who is a Catholic and a unionist and recognises and understands and indeed feels both traditions in Northern Ireland, I think that is a matter of great regret,” he said.
“But I do it with confidence that it is the right thing to do.”
It was clear that there would still be a substantial backbench rebellion from the Conservative benches against taking the bill to a second reading despite the concession.
Tory MP Gareth Johnson (Dartford) said he would defy the government and vote against the bill.
He said: “I am speaking with some reluctance today because I have never defied the party line on any issue and it is something that I hope not to do throughout my time in parliament.
“However, this bill is fundamentally wrong. I have been a loyal supporter of both the government and my party, but I am proud to be British, proud of our constitution and proud of our parliament.
“The Lords forms an essential part of our constitution, our heritage, history and our culture. Once it is gone, it is gone – 700 years of history will be undone if we support this bill.
“The House of Lords is unique because Britain is unique and we should celebrate that fact and not try to change it. And if MPs are not going to protect parliament, then who is?”
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