26 Jun 2012

Full steam for Lords reform

 The stakes are being massively raised for the vote on Lords reform in two weeks time. Lib Dems are talking about the cabinet having been “eye-balled” at the meeting today when 16 ministers spoke after the DPM and PM kicked off the discussion. Nick Clegg’s allies report a wave of meetings between the DPM and the PM over Lords reform in the last 24 hours. Senior Lib Dems sources say the PM is committed to heavy duty whipping (career threatening conversations etc) and not the light-touch whipping that many Tory dissidents expect. We’ll see.

The threat of using the Parliament Act to force the bill through the Lords if that house opposes reform (after a Commons vote in favour), is back in circulation having receded from the PM’s chat in recent times.

Ed Miliband has decided how he’s going to play Lords reform and he’s gone for a bit of a fudge. He’ll vote for the second reading then vote against the programme motion (which would allow the government to limit Commons debate to 10 days on the floor of the House of Commons after a two-day second reading debate). Ed Miliband’s signalled that he wants this Bill to get to the Lords (I’m sure he does – it’ll be a bloodbath) and that means, at some point yet to be determined, when the amendments he thinks are critical have been considered, he’ll switch sides and support a government guillotine. It’s not clear that’ll be an easy process to control if the programme motion is lost. And the Lib Dems think he’s completely sold out on constitutional reform.

Ed M’s supporters insist the Labour leader is not squandering his reputation for high principle and being utterly opportunistic, killing off a reform measure just to stir up divisions in the coalition. They insist that his cunning plan is more measured than that. (He has significant internal challenges to Lords reform even though it’s been a Labour policy for decades – the older generation Labour MPs are, on the whole, more hostile to Lords reform.)

Coalition divisions

And what of those divisions in the coalition? Cabinet discussed the plans this morning. David Cameron believes he must look like a man who is doing everything possible to dragoon his troops into voting for Lords reform. If he doesn’t deliver and doesn’t look like he really tried to pull out all the stops and torture implements to deliver, senior Lib Dems say it would be “very very bad.” The PM and the DPM would have the summer to consider their next move – giving up, finding other compensatory trade-offs or wreaking vengeance. The revenge most Lib Dems talk about if Tories trash their reform of the Lords would be a vote against the boundary review (due next summer).

Tory high command sees that review as the only hope of getting an outright majority at the next election. As things stand, Tory whips advise that the government doesn’t have the votes to win the timetabling motion. Concessions like lower rates of pay for “senators,” larger constituencies, permitting part-time senators and increasing the numbers from 400 to 550 in the “senate” are all now part of the bill to be published tomorrow. But will they make a happenth of difference to a Tory MP who sees it as a battle for the supremacy of the Commons? The coalition is entering what will – either way – be a searing experience.

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