Lords a leaping

 

IT MAY be a flagship part of the Lib-Dem agenda and a firm commitment in the programme agreed with the Tories. But the latter, it appears, may have considerable difficulty mustering sufficient troops to back coalition plans for a substantially elected House of Lords.

No sooner had they been launched on Wednesday than the rifts in the coalition became clear – a substantial body of Tory MP is ready to defy the government, and among them even junior ministerial rebels. Northern Secretary Owen Paterson’s aide Conor Burns has already threatened to resign if a three-line whip is imposed.

For the Lib-Dems failure on this issue, after the fiasco of the failed alternative vote referendum, would leave many asking why they should vote through Tory measures, deeply anathema to their base, like a planned revision of constituency boundaries, while the Tories appear unwilling to reciprocate. A quite plausible rebellion by 80 Tories would be sufficient to defeat a key resolution setting a time limit to the debate.

The coalition’s plans would reduce the Lords from 826 to 450 members, see 80 per cent elected on regional lists, and the remaining 90 selected by an appointments commission to serve as non-party crossbenchers. There would be 12 bishops, reducing the Church of England’s representation from its current 26. Elected members would be voted on in three batches of 120 over ten years from 2015 as sitting members are phased out. And they would serve only one 15-year term. The power of the two houses would not be changed – the Lords will remain able only to amend Bills, subject to subsequent agreement of the Commons, or delay rather than block them. It will still not be able to delay money bills.

Unlike the argument over Ireland’s second house, the Seanad, there is no appetite for abolition. The case that a revision chamber with a distinct mandate and expertise is a useful check on the lower house is generally accepted. Tory backbench objectors broadly run with the “if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it” line, that the country has been well served by tradition, and that, as Burns argues, an elected Lords would inevitably “create a democratic rival to the Commons”. They are also pressing for a referendum – although opposed by the Lib-Dems, it is seriously being considered by the Tories as a compromise necessary to get the Bill through.

Unlike fish, as the Guardian puts it, historically, coalitions rot from the bottom up. One way or another the Tory-Lib-Dem coalition will only come through this process badly bruised.

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