Abolition of Lords reform plan draws ire of Lib Dems

Tue, Aug 7, 2012, 01:00

THE CONSERVATIVE/Liberal Democrat coalition faces its biggest crisis yet, following the decision to scrap the junior coalition’s partner’s cherished plans to reform the House of Lords.

In retaliation, Liberal Democrat leader and deputy prime minister Nick Clegg insisted that his MPs, including ministers, would oppose plans to cut the numbers of MPs by 50.

“The Conservative Party is not honouring the commitment to Lords reform and, as a result, part of our contract has now been broken,” Mr Clegg declared yesterday.

“Clearly I cannot permit a situation where Conservative rebels can pick and choose the parts of the contract they like, while Liberal Democrat MPs are bound to the entire agreement.”

The Boundary Commission’s redrawing of constituencies is due to come before the House of Commons next year, in time for the changes to be made for the 2015 election.

However, Mr Clegg’s refusal to support the changes means an unprecedented situation whereby Liberal Democrats, including himself, could vote against them, yet remain ministers.

Conservative prime minister David Cameron, who failed to persuade his MPs to back a partly elected House of Lords, must now decide whether to drop the boundary changes, or push it to a Commons vote. Despite the crisis, Mr Clegg said the coalition would continue, insisting that he would “draw a line under these events and get on with the rest of our programme for government.

“My Liberal Democrat colleagues and I remain focused on the urgent task that brought the coalition together: rescuing, repairing and rebalancing our economy,” he said.

The Liberal Democrats are furious that they voted for politically difficult tuition fees and National Health Service reforms while the Conservatives refused to back House of Lords reforms.

Under the reforms, the Lords would be gradually replaced by a senate, with the first tranche of office-holders – elected once only for 15 years – to be chosen in 2015.

Conservative MPs insist that such changes threatened the primacy of the House of Commons, adding also that the coalition agreement promised legislation, but not that they would put it into law.

Last month, a Commons motion that would have limited debate on the legislation – to ensure that it was not subject to endless filibusters – was defeated with the votes of most Labour MPs.

Equally angry with Labour leader Ed Miliband, Mr Clegg said Labour continued to back Lords reform in principle but “they are set on blocking it in practice”.

Labour’s stand, he said, would have ensured that the Commons would have been bogged “down for months” if the legislation was put down for debate, without limits on how long it should last.

Mr Clegg defended his decision to link House of Lords reform with boundary changes because, he said, they were all parts of one package of constitutional reforms.

“Lords reform leads to a smaller, more legitimate House of Lords. Boundary changes lead to a smaller House of Commons, by cutting the number of MPs.

“If you cut the number of MPs without enhancing the legitimacy and effectiveness of the Lords, all you have done is weaken parliament as a whole, strengthen the executive and it’s overmighty government that wins,” he declared.

Currently, House of Commons constituencies vary widely in size, which gives Labour a considerable advantage in inner-city constituencies, particularly in the north of England.

Bringing them more closely into line would have brought the Conservatives an extra 20 seats at the next election, political analysts believe – though most of those gains would have come from the Liberal Democrats.

Despite the arguments between party leaders, however, many individual MPs in the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and Labour worried about their own careers will not be disappointed to see an end to boundary changes.

Influential Liberal Democrat MP Simon Hughes said: “It’s a fault, it’s failure, it’s something that’s a setback. I’m very angry about it.

“Liberal Democrats will be very angry about it, many reformists across the parties will be very angry, but we have to face reality.”

Mr Clegg’s failure to reform the upper house – which has grown substantially in size in recent years and is due to get even more members before 2015 – is but the latest effort to fail over the last 100 years.

“This cause has long been blocked by an establishment resistant to change and by the vested interests who benefit from maintaining the power of political patronage, while keeping the power of people out,” Mr Clegg declared.