London Letter: Tory minority in Lords set to trouble Cameron

PM could opt to stuff red benches with peers but move would likely draw unnecessary flak

House of Lords: May not just be a place of ceremony over the next five years. Photograph: Leon Neal/PA

House of Lords: May not just be a place of ceremony over the next five years. Photograph: Leon Neal/PA

 

Members of the House of Commons, led by prime minister David Cameron, will trail into the more resplendent surroundings of the House of Lords later this month to listen to Queen Elizabeth deliver the Queen’s Speech.

It is the most majestic of Westminster’s pageantries, where the queen is preceded by the Earl Marshal, Edward Fitzalan-Howard, 18th Duke of Norfolk and a peer holding the Cap of Maintenance, a ceremonial cap of crimson velvet lined with ermine.

The House of Lords, however, may not just be a place of ceremony over the next five years. Instead, it may prove on occasion to be Cameron’s nemesis, since although he may command a majority in the Commons he does not do so in the Lords.

In all, Cameron has 224 Conservative peers to call upon for votes; Labour has 315, while the Liberal Democrats’ 110 members – who sat on the government benches up for the last five years – will now transfer to the other side.

Even with a majority of voting peers in the last administration Cameron struggled on occasions, regularly losing votes on welfare reforms and other issues. Eighty-nine times, in fact, according to the House of Lords’s library.

In addition, Cameron must cope with the 26 Lords Spiritual – the Archbishop of Canterbury and 25 bishops of the Church of England, and 178 so-called crossbench peers, who declare no party loyalty.

In its opening moves, the Conservative-majority cabinet has targeted issues likely to rile the tempers of the upper house, which has often seen itself to be the last bastion against the authoritarian instincts of the executive.

It did so against Tony Blair over his plans for 90-day detention, for example. It objected since 2010 to Cameron’s efforts to curb the number of judicial reviews, and also to legislation that limited the rights of miscarriage of justice victims to claim compensation.

The House of Lords’s powers – unelected, as it is – are not what they were. By convention, it does not deal with finance bills. Nor does it challenge legislation for which a government has sought a clear mandate from voters.

Here, however, the so-called Salisbury Convention – drawn up during Labour’s 1945-51 government to ensure that Clement Attlee could rule, even though he did not have the numbers in the Lords – could be sorely tested.

In their election manifesto, the Conservatives made clear that one of their commitments to voters will be to “scrap the Human Rights Act and curtail the role of the European Court of Human Rights”.

The Conservatives have chosen from the off to make clear that the promise will be quickly brought to reality, with Cameron putting the matter into the hands of the new justice secretary, Michael Gove.

However, Salisbury Convention or no, the Conservatives’ attempt will test the House of Lords, particularly given the flawed nature of the plans and the confusion over what impacts such actions would have on Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

So far, it seems that the Westminster parliament has the freedom if it wishes to repeal the Human Rights Act. This would not end the domestic incorporation of the European Convention of Human Rights in the devolved nations.

Devolved governments

People in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland would no longer able to bring legal actions founded on protections offered by the convention against UK departments and other public bodies.

Equally, they would not be able to challenge Westminster legislation that affects them, but they would still able to challenge primary or secondary legislation enacted by the devolved institutions or other acts of the devolved governments.

Cameron could, of course, solve his lack of Conservative peers by appointing a swathe of them to the red benches, though he could find it difficult to do so while also arguing that saving money is one of the reasons why the number of MPs should be cut.

Ironically, Cameron’s vulnerability to the Liberal Democrats is particularly acute because of the increases in the number of their peers for which he was responsible since 2010, along with Tony Blair’s appointments during his 10 years in power.

Blair appointed 54. Cameron appointed a further 40, partly in an attempt to ensure that membership of the Lords stayed in line with the share of the votes each party gets in a general election.

“That Cameron went along with this plan may already be a source of regret. If not, it probably will be soon,” says Meg Russell, Professor of British and Comparative Politics, University College, London.

However, the plan was flawed. Membership of the Lords is for life, not just for an election, so the only way that parity can be kept is if the ruling party decides perpetually to increase the already-creaking chamber in size

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