8 May 2012

Search for a trade-off on House of Lords reform

As has been reported over the Bank Holiday weekend, the Queen’s Speech tomorrow won’t go as hard on Lords reform as once expected. It’ll talk about the government’s desire to seek “consensus” on the issue. You won’t get Lib Dems shouting it from the roof-tops, but a trade-off discussion is going on behind the scenes.

The original David Cameron commitment to pursue Lords reform – an 80 per cent elected chamber phased in, and if necessary, that measure would be forced through the House of Lords using the Parliament Act – is in the process of being folded up and packed away in the face of massive, coordinated and determined opposition from Tory MPs. The Tories were facing a colossal civil war on the issue, resignations from the government and gridlock. Note: “The Tories were facing” these horrors. The Lib Dems would’ve copped the blame from various Tories, would’ve failed to get anywhere with their great cause, but wouldn’t (save for a few Lib Dem peers) have faced any sort of internal uprising.

So the Lib Dems are letting the Tories dilute the language in tomorrow’s Queen’s Speech but they aren’t publicly conceding a massive climbdown on Lords reform until they have banked something succulent in return. What’s up for discussion in the trade-off?

Party funding measures are being discussed. Combining the Tory and Lib Dem strength the two Coalition parties would have the numbers (and, for once, the combined shared will) to rewrite the rules, shove the Lib Dems a bit more discreet state aid and try to thwack Labour’s trade union income.

But I hear that Lib Dems in government are worried that it would look too much like the Coalition partners ganging up to monster Labour, an illiberal act. So while that is still a trade-off in play, most attention is on postponing the boundary changes and the reduction in the size of the Commons.

There’s already been primary legislation to clear the path for that, but it still needs secondary legislation when the seats are signed off by the Boundary Commission. That was supposed to be voted on next year so that the new 600 seat Commons, which George Osborne, among others, thinks makes the next election more easily winnable for the Tories, was in place ready for a 2015 General Election. I hear that Nick Clegg and David Cameron could be close to agreeing a plan to knock that entire timetable back into the next parliament.

If that were to happen, the Tories would lose out on the predicted advantage they’d get from the changes in 2015; they might even lose out beyond 2015 if the next government didn’t support them. They would, though, avoid a bloodbath over Lords reform, and they would cheer up some of their own backbenchers worried about their own seats going under the original boundary change plans. One MP whose seat was disappearing and would be saved under this wheeze would be Nadine Dorries ( Mid Bedfordshire, 15,000 Tory majority).

In the process of all of this, the Lib Dems would appease some of their own MPs worried about losing their seats in the Boundary revision. And for those that lose seats anyway, through a collision with the electorate, there will still be a resting place for them in the House of Lords where they can give continuing public service to a grateful public.

Follow @GaryGibbonBlog on Twitter.

Tweets by @garygibbonc4