5 Jul 2012

Lords vote still looks very shaky

Just before we get stuck into the banking inquiry debate today, a word about next week, the Lords and how things look. Government whips are still insisting that the vote on the  programme motion on House of Lords reform (that’s the motion that limits the number of days’ debate and allows the government to keep control of the timetable) will definitely happen on Tuesday night after the second reading vote.

Tory rebels say the current number of their fellow MPs who say they are committed to voting against the programme motion exceeds 100. They think that number will inevitably flake. But with most Labour MPs onside, plus the DUP and the SNP they are saying that defeat for the government on its timetable motion is in the bag. One rebel speculated it could be defeated by as much as 50 votes.
But more seasoned rebels say it will be very close. They’re heartened that they have 40 pre-2010 intake who they think are “rock hard” but worried that 2010 intake rebels will be pummelled by the whips over the weekend. One MP of 15 years’ experience said two new MPs had asked what a programme motion was?

Some senior Lib Dems are recommending that Nick Clegg carries on with the bill even if he loses the programme motion. The plan would be to table it again after a few months of debate and “shame Labour into backing it.” Some Lib Dems you talk to are inclined to pull stumps and give up if the majority against the programme motion is sizeable. But not without retribution – most talk of refusing to support the Tories on Boundary reform if Lords reform doesn’t go ahead.

Lib Dem ministers tell me they won’t be impressed if David Cameron points to the battered political corpses of executed rebel parliamentary aides  who voted against the whip and claims that proves he was seriously doing his best. That would not trigger a capitulation by the Lib Dems, they say. One  Lib Dem minister described the programme motion as “the key to the door – without it reform doesn’t happen.” A failure to get the programme motion is a breach of the working practices of the Coalition agreement, one said, and “that would mean retaliation.”

A footnote to all this. I was chatting to one of the original coalition agreement negotiators about why, on boundary review and reducing the size of the Commons, two parties who had lower target numbers than 600 for the size of the Commons ended up compromising not on the middle number between their two positions but on a higher one of 600. “Those of us in the negotiating teams happened to be people who were pretty conservative on the whole idea,” I was told. I think this is something that should interest constitutional/political academics: the special enhanced role of the particular individuals who crunch a coalition agreement. I wonder where else it was felt and where it might impact in future agreements. Just a thought.

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