Commons vote on Lords abandoned after Tory revolt
CONFLICT BETWEEN the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats was heightened last night after key legislation to reform the House of Lords was not put to a House of Commons vote because of a rebellion by Conservative MPs.
Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg was furious that his bid to replace unelected lords with one-term elected senators had fallen in the face of the biggest revolt by Conservatives since the government was formed.
The reform legislation passed its second reading in the Commons shortly after 10pm, with the help of Labour votes, but another vote – limiting the debate to just 10 days – was scrapped at 4pm after talks between Mr Clegg and prime minister David Cameron.
The Liberal Democrats leader says that Mr Cameron and the Conservative whips have not done anything to force rebel MPs into voting for the reform – his second big ambition to reform the UK’s constitutional rules.
The failure to limit the debate to 10 days means that the legislation will not come before the House of Commons until the autumn, all the while eating into the time that Mr Clegg would need to overcome the inevitable assault that will be unleashed by the House of Lords.
Conservative MP Conor Burns resigned his unpaid role as a ministerial aide last night in protest at the Government’s plans. Mr Burns said he could not support the coalition’s shake-up of the upper House as he quit his job as private secretary to Northern Ireland Secretary Owen Paterson.
“I face a dilemma tonight that I have finally resolved in my own mind. I cannot support this Bill at second reading. I couldn’t look myself in the eye if I voted for this Bill at second reading, and clearly that is incompatible with membership of Her Majesty’s Government,” he told MPs.
Mr Burns and up to 100 other Conservatives say that an elected upper house would threaten the primacy of the House of Commons and prevent a Commons majority from carrying out their manifesto.
Under Mr Clegg’s plan, senators would be elected in stages, with the first one-third arriving in 2015 using a regional open-list proportional voting system that, critics say, would ensure that the Liberal Democrats would have a permanent veto on British politics.
In a bid to deflect attention, Mr Cameron accused Labour of “playing politics”. “I think it’s quite extraordinary that the Labour Party, which has stood on manifesto after manifesto to reform (it) is planning to oppose (the timetabling) and therefore try and stop this reform going ahead.”
Talks will be held over the summer to see if an agreement can be found with Conservative rebels, but such is unlikely because it is a genuine matter of principle for most, rather than one fuelled simply by overt political advantage.
Influential Liberal Democrat MP David Laws said the motion on timetabling – known in House of Commons parlance as “a programme motion” – had been delayed so that the Conservatives could build consensus within their ranks. “But we’ll revisit that in seven or eight weeks’ time — we expect to win then,” said Mr Laws, reflecting the determination of the Liberal Democrats not to be dissuaded on the issue, which now takes on totemic status since they lost the referendum to abolish first-past-the-post voting.
However, there is a degree of disarray in Lib Dem ranks, since Mr Clegg dismissed hints that he had given just 24 hours before that a referendum could be held on the principle once the first one-third of the senators were elected.
Responding to MPs, he said a referendum would “be expensive, difficult to justify to the public, who do not think it is necessary, and ill-timed when we as a country have a much bigger question to address”.