6 Jul 2012

Five days of Lords pressure ahead

After yesterday’s spectacle of Ed Balls and George Osborne impersonating a pair of male bull seals competing for supremacy on a South Georgia beach, the focus moves back to Lords reform and the vote on Tuesday.

The Independent’s words from Nick Clegg’s just departed aide Richard Reeves has stoked things up just before a weekend of heavy whipping in the Tory ranks. Mr Reeves suggests if Mr Clegg doesn’t get his Lords reform, Mr Cameron won’t get his boundary review. Not sure this is the backdrop to whipping Tory MPs that the Chief Whip would’ve wanted. He already has Tory MPs complaining of the Lib Dems getting more than their fair share of policy victories.

I hear that disgruntlement about Lib Dem modus operandi goes a lot higher. One senior Tory told me how the whole relationship at the top of the Coalition has become “more transactional” and how the Lib Dems have been “over-using the quad,” the star chamber of Clegg/Cameron/Alexander/Osborne which is meant to arbitrate on issues that have proved too sticky or sensitive to sort. “They’re using the Quad too much,” one source said, “all the time, these days. To avoid Cabinet, where they haven’t got the numbers, they’re taking stuff to the Quad where it’s 50:50.” 

Anyway, the immediate focus is Tuesday’s vote on the Lords. Tory rebel organisers this week put their numbers at 104 Tory votes against the timetable motion. But they know their struggle will be to hold on to the 64 2010 intake rebels included in that tally.

They’re more confident of the 40 more bankable pre-2010 intake rebels – figures like Sir Peter Tapsell, Sir John Stanley, Sir Peter Bottomley, who they assume the whips won’t be able to shift. So the vote on the procedural motion, “the key to Lords reform,” as one Lib Dem minister called it, is still looking shaky and George Osborne, fresh from the South Georgia beach, and David Cameron have their lists of individuals they will ring and see face to face over the next five days.

If the Coalition loses the procedural motion relatively narrowly the signs are that the government will plough on with Lords reform, put up with weeks of 3am sittings and disrupted business and stick another timetable motion in front of MPs again later in the year.

If the Coalition were to lose heavily, it could trigger a different sort of chat in government and the sort of retaliation Richard Reeves hints at might come into play. It’s worth pointing out that the timetable for the vote on Boundary Review points to a vote next Summer, round about when the government could, under its own proclaimed scenario, be trying to use the Parliament Act to force the measure through the Lords.

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