Tories defeat Coalition: What next?
by John Humphrys in Commentary and Editor's picks
Wed July 11, 6:13 p.m. BST
Reforming the Lords: gaining a majority vote in support of reform, but rebellion from backbenchers: John Humphrys considers what the Lords reform vote means for the Coalition
When you’re faced with inevitable defeat what’s the best thing to do: go down with all guns firing or make a sudden tactical retreat in the hope you might live to fight another day?
The Coalition Government opted for the second course of action this week when it was faced with defeat over its plans to reform the House of Lords. But its temporary retreat from the field of battle has left it more than bruised. There is now deep suspicion and mistrust between the two parties in the Coalition that threatens the functioning of the Government and maybe its very survival. So what should happen now?
The reason the retreat could have such fatal consequences is that it was forced by backbench Conservative MPs, the very people expected to support the Government. Ninety one of them voted against the second reading of the bill which would transform the House of Lords from being the unelected, appointed body it is today to one in which 80% of its reduced number of members would be elected.
In fact that second reading (which expresses the House of Commons’ view of the broad outlines of a bill) was passed by the huge majority of 338 because the Labour opposition voted in favour. But it was over the next vote, determining the timetable for the bill’s detailed scrutiny in the Commons, that the Government faced defeat. That’s because Labour opposed the timetable on the grounds that it did not offer MPs enough time to consider the bill. Together with the 91 Tory rebels, their opposition would have scuppered the timetable motion. So the Government withdrew the motion and said it would come back with a new timetable in the autumn.
But few people think the situation will be much different then.Most of the Tory rebels are resolute in their opposition to what is being proposed for the House of Lords and can take comfort in the numbers who share their view. Nor is Labour likely to prove more accommodating. Ed Miliband and his Labour colleagues will be under some pressure to help bring about a reform they support but there is not much chance they will succumb to it.
Oppositions do not, in general, think it is their job to help governments get their business through Parliament and the politics suggest exactly the opposite course of action. Labour is unlikely to be punished by the voters for blocking Lords reform because it seems most of us don’t really care about it. And the real temptation for Labour will be to prolong the recriminations within the coalition by refusing to play ball.
So it is highly probable that, come the autumn, the Government will find itself in exactly the same position it is in this week: unable to make progress on Lords reform. That’s why not only the Tory rebels but also many commentators are already pronouncing it dead, just like all the other attempts to reform the upper house in the last hundred years.
But this can hardly be the end of the story. That’s because for the Liberal Democrats reform of the House of Lords is more than just a desirable policy, it is central to their very identity. It was a Liberal government, a hundred years ago, which took the first steps to reform the upper house and the party has considered it unfinished business ever since. Indeed Nick Clegg, the LibDem leader and Deputy Prime Minister, declared the vote this week as a 'triumph', in that it was the first time the House of Commons had backed the principle of reform with such a huge majority.
So the LibDems are not going to give up now. And that is not just because they believe in Lords reform. Since joining the coalition government two years ago they have had to swallow a great deal they would have preferred to spit out, including university tuition fees and defeat on the referendum to change the voting system. That defeat especially embittered them because it came after their supposed ally, the Prime Minister, encouraged Tory donors to cough up for the campaign that defeated it. Most of all, they argue that Lords reform was part of the deal the two parties made when they formed the coalition and they believe the Tories have a moral responsibility to stick to the terms of the deal just as they claim they have. That means no more and no less than requiring David Cameron to bring his rebels to heel.
If the Prime Minister fails to do so (as now seems highly likely), then many LibDems will regard it as a breaking of the deal. As Simon Hughes, the Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrats, put it to me on the Today programme after the government retreat, “a deal is a deal”. If it is broken, he said, “there would be consequences.”
What might those consequences be? Even before the retreat there were hints from LibDem sources that if Tory MPs thwarted them over Lords reform then they might thwart the Tories over something the Tories want: changing constituency boundaries before the next election, due in 2015. Without explicitly making this threat, Mr Hughes brought up the point in our interview. He said: “The one thing that is obvious the Tories desperately want is the Boundary Commission proposals to go through which is an advantage to them. We signed up to a deal and we have honoured our deal. They have to honour their deal; it’s a matter for them how to do it.”
The implicit threat is obvious to anyone and many in his party will think it is only fair to make it. After all, if one side of a deal breaks it, is the other side supposed simply to take it lying down?
But not everyone (and not just Tories) will see it like that. Many will think the threat outrageous. They will point out that the Coalition deal was not about sharing goodies between the two parties, like gangsters sharing the spoils of a bank raid. What was agreed, we were told at the time, was a programme of measures that both sides believed were necessary in the public interest. Boundary changes may help the Conservative Party but they were also necessary, it was argued, because the current boundaries distort the proper expression of the democratic will of the people. Just because one reform the Coalition believes desirable has fallen by the way does not mean that another should also be sacrificed in some sort of tit-for-tat party political squabble.
But that is now the danger facing the government: that future policy will be seen less and less with regard to the public interest and more with respect to which Coalition party is getting the best of the deal. In the eyes of some, this state of affairs can lead only to bad, or at the very least, paralysed government. Some may come to the conclusion that such a state of affairs cannot last for long and that an early election will be the only way out.
Faced with that prospect the Labour Party, already ahead in the polls, is hardly likely to want to be helpful in reforming the Lords. The autumn looks as though it will be an interesting time for British politics.
What’s your view?
- How much does House of Lords reform matter to you and does it concern you that it has been stalled?
- Do you think the Government will be able to proceed with it in the autumn?
- Do you think the Tory rebels were justified in opposing a measure that was part of the Coalition agreement or not?
- Should Labour offer to assist the Government in getting through a measure it supports?
- Do you think it will?
- Would it be justified for the LibDems to threaten to obstruct boundary changes if they fail to make progress on Lords reform?
- Do you think the Coalition can provide effective Government despite the tensions between the two parties caused by what’s happened over Lords reform?
- And do you think the election should be brought forward from 2015?