Clegg's Lords reform plan faces threat of MPs' rebellion


For 100 years Liberals have dreamed of reforming the House of Lords, but the latest assault may be in trouble

LIBERAL DEMOCRATS leader Nick Clegg has reason to fear referendums, having been humiliated when he asked British voters to back change to first-past-the-post rules that nobody much wanted, or certainly understood.

Since then, he has trumpeted his other major constitutional change: to replace the House of Lords and 1,000 years of history, or privilege, depending on one’s viewpoint, with a directly elected senate half its size.

Under the Clegg plan, the new body would be created in stages, with more than 150 senators elected for one-off 15 years in each of the next three general elections, beginning in 2015. The existing complement would be gradually retired.

The legislation, however, is in trouble. Up to 100 Conservative MPs may rebel in a vote tonight on the government’s bid to ensure that it is whipped quickly through the House of Commons.

Proof that Clegg knows he is in serious difficulties came in his speech yesterday to the Commons, when he dropped less than subtle hints to MPs that he would be prepared to accept a referendum after the first group of senators are elected in 2015.

“If you or other MPs feel there are some assurances you or other MPs need after the first wave of elected peers have been elected, such that the second or third stages of reform are subject to some kind of trigger, then of course I would be prepared to look at that,” he said, in words that had the tone of a man pleading.

The Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats all promised some form of elected upper house in their general manifestos, but only the Lib Dems could be said to be really serious about it, partly because it could institutionalise their power in British politics.

Under the Clegg plan, the senators would represent regional constituencies, elected on an open-list proportional representation – which would guarantee the widest possible collection of views, say the Liberal Democrats.

Many Conservative and Labour MPs believe the reforms are a constitutional outrage, threatening the natural primacy of the Commons and ensuring that a government could win a majority there, yet be unable to rule.

Hertfordshire MP Oliver Heald put it succinctly last evening. Up to now, the House of Lords has always given way to the Commons if a majority of MPs made it sufficiently clear that they were not for turning on an issue.

Clegg’s reforms would change the balance, creating a class of super-MP with his or her own elected mandate and a guarantee of office for three times as long as an MP, argue Heald and a succession of colleagues.

In Australia, senators of smaller parties get to mind several parliamentary constituencies if their party does not have representatives in the areas, thus creating “constituency case tourism” – a near-unforgivable sin in the British political canon.

“You can’t use the Parliament Act [legislation whereby MPs can limit the House of Lords’s ability to hold up legislation for a year only] every time. That is the nuclear option. We will struggle to have effective government,” he told MPs.

For now, Labour can have it all ways. It is voting in favour of the legislation getting a second reading, but against the Conservative/Liberal Democrat bid to have it concluded in 10 days before it goes on to the Lords.

Time is of the essence for Clegg. Like turkeys, the Lords will not vote for Christmas, and neither will they vote for the first assault on the bastion at the other end of the Westminster building, so Clegg will have to try again before he puts the lords and baronesses out of play using the Parliament Act.

However, time is running along for Clegg. He has put much faith in his ability to reform the UK’s unwritten constitution. However, his credibility was damaged with one rebuff. It is far from clear that it could sustain a second.