'Out of touch', 'short-termist' – the Government 's had some bad months. Can the PM avoid a House of Lords storm, asks John Humphrys?
David Cameron admits he’s had a bad couple of months.
The Prime Minister told me in an interview on Monday that the Government needed to 'raise its game'. A select committee of MPs has accused the Government of being short-termist; unable to reflect on the long-term interests of the nation. One of his own backbenchers has endorsed Labour’s main criticism of him: that he is out of touch. And now the Government faces getting bogged down by an issue Mr Cameron concedes is not a priority for the British people: reform of the House of Lords.
So is the Prime Minister heading for another car crash or can he swerve to avoid disaster?
Mr Cameron remarked in his Today interview on Monday that it was not surprising for a government to have a bad couple of months over two years in power. But he did not pretend that the events of the last few weeks had not been harmful or, indeed, self-induced. Bad presentation of the Budget, controversial advice from ministers over the fuel dispute and the fiasco over the deportation of Abu Qatada, all contributed to the impression of a government that was incompetent. A reputation for incompetence is always lethal for governments.
His defence was that although these were all events from which the Government needed to learn, nonetheless it had never lost sight of its main strategic concerns: to eradicate the huge budget deficit it had inherited and to transform society by making it more entrepreneurial and efficient.
Yet it is exactly this strategic vision which was called into question later in the day by the report of the all-party public administration select committee, chaired by the Conservative MP, Bernard Jenkin. 'Policy decisions are made for short-term reasons, little reflecting the longer-term interests of the nation,' the report said.
Perhaps even more damaging politically was the verdict of a Tory backbencher, Nadine Dorries, who accused the Government of being out of touch ‒ exactly the charge which the Labour Party has discovered, through focus groups, chimes with opinion in the country. She said: 'There is a very tight, narrow clique of a certain group of people and what they do is act as a barrier and prevent Cameron and Osborne and others from actually really understanding or knowing what is happening in the rest of the country.'
She went on: 'I think that not only are Cameron and Osborne two posh boys who don’t know the price of milk, but they are two arrogant posh boys who show no remorse, no contrition, and no passion to want to understand the lives of others – and that is their real crime'.
Such exceptionally strong language from a Government backbencher may reflect specific resentments on Ms Dorries’s part at the way she has been treated in the past.
But there is no doubt that many Tory backbenchers do feel excluded from influence by the way the Prime Minister and the Chancellor run affairs and Mr Cameron’s rejoinder – that he does indeed know the price of milk because he goes shopping in his constituency every week – is unlikely to appease many of them. Some, it has been reported, are considering defecting to UKIP, the United Kingdom Independence Party.
Now the issue of House of Lords reform has come along and, in this toxic political atmosphere, it will be even more difficult for the Prime Minister to handle. It would probably not be his choice to address it at all at the moment, but it was an inevitable consequence of forming a Coalition Government back in 2010 that sooner or later it would rise to the top of the political agenda.
Now it has.
All three major parties went into the last election committed to reforming the House of Lords. But they disagreed on how. Indeed, all three parties are internally split on a subject that has defeated reformers for a hundred years.
n the Coalition deal, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats agreed to try to reach a consensus on the matter. They published their own proposals and set up a joint committee of both Houses of Parliament to report on the matter.
The committee published its report this week.
It wants the current House of Lords, which is wholly appointed except for a rump of 93 hereditary peers, to be reduced from around 800 (and rising) to 450. 80% of the new House of Lords would, over a period of fifteen years, be elected in batches of 150, with each peer serving for fifteen years and be ineligible for re-election. The remaining 20% would be appointed. This would leave a bigger House of Lords than the Government itself envisages and the committee recommends that the proposal should be put to a referendum, something the Government has opposed.
But a significant minority of the committee disagreed with these recommendations and published its own report. One of the chief worries of opponents of the proposed reform is that it will undermine the primacy of the House of Commons. Under current arrangements, by which only the House of Commons is elected, the Lords acts only as a revising and delaying chamber, acknowledging the ultimate right of the elected chamber to get its way.
But if the House of Lords were in part elected, it’s argued, there would be the potential for constitutional conflict between the two chambers of parliament as each fought to claim democratic legitimacy.
Some argue that the way out of this problem is for the Lords to do away with the remaining hereditary peers but otherwise to remain wholly appointed, carrying on its revising and delaying role, but staying subservient to the Commons in the last resort. But this offends those who think it quite improper for any part of government not to be democratically elected.
Another solution would be for both chambers to be elected (the Lords not necessarily entirely) but for a very clear definition of the powers of each to be enshrined in law so that a constitutional clash between the two over which had power to do what could be avoided. But critics of this idea say it would simply transfer the problem to the courts, as disputes arose about whether either chamber had overstepped its mark.
As if all this were not difficult enough for the Government, there is a thorny political problem over whether or not to put any reform proposals to a referendum. The Government opposes the idea. It says that since all three parties advocated reform at the last election, a referendum is not needed. It would also be costly, they say. Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister and LiubDem leader, seems especially anxious to avoid a referendum, having got a bloody nose from losing the referendum on voting reform last year. But Labour is committed to a referendum and it’s believed that many Tory MPs, unhappy with the substance of the reforms themselves, could join Labour in defeating them if they do not include provision for a referendum.
Many commentators think the outcome of all this is that the Government will end up having to concede a referendum. The Prime Minister told me that although he opposed a referendum he didn’t rule it out and would listen to opinion. But even if a referendum is conceded, we are still a long way off any settled view as to what precise reform the British people would be asked to decide upon. Reaching that settled view could take a very long time indeed. The danger for Mr Cameron is that the time and effort spent on reaching such a consensus would come to seem to the electorate as confirming the view of the public administration committee that the Government is not focussing on what matters and the opinion of Ms Dorries that it is out of touch.
What’s your view?
- Do you agree or not with Nadine Dorries that the Government is out of touch?
- Do you share the view of the select committee that the Government is short-termist?
- How important do you think Lords reform is?
- What do you make of the joint committee’s recommendations for reform: that a new House of Lords should be 80% elected and 20% appointed?
- How seriously do you take the objection that even a partially elected House of Lords would come into constitutional conflict with the Commons?
- Do you worry or not that constitutional disputes between the two chambers would end up in the courts?
- Should any proposals for Lords reform be put to a referendum or not?
- And do you think attempts to reform the Lords will succeed this time or fail once again?
Let us know your views in the comments below