This article is from the April issue of Total Politics

The sound of lordly dissent to the idea that peers should share the red benches with their elected peers is muttered but unmistakeable, and it sounds like this: “Bollocks.”

Whether Nick Clegg heard the verdict as he tried to convince the joint committee on Lords reform that elections would leave the powers of both chambers unaffected is not clear. That it represents the widespread and strongly held view of their lordships, from whose ranks in the cheap seats of Committee Room 4a it sprang, is beyond doubt. And so, even before the Queen announces the bill on 9 May, battle is joined.

Debate about the ambit of peers’ power can become esoteric, but the risks for the coalition are enormous, and the political fight could define the whole Parliament. At stake, in no particular order, is the credibility of Clegg, the word of Cameron, the Tories’ precious boundary review, the next legislative session, the staying power of the coalition and the constitution. And, of course, the livelihoods of 700-odd peers.

Tories are trying to remain calm. “The prime minister gave his word,” says someone who can speak for Cameron, referring to the agreement with Clegg to push reform, wielding the Parliament Act if necessary. How Cameron must be hoping things fall apart before having to decide whether to welch on the deal.

Similarly, the threat of an all-out strike by Tory peers ready to block all government legislation is, for the moment, treated coolly. “There’s a lot of that sort of talk going on. It sounds good after the second whisky in the Bishops’ bar,” says one Tory who will have to deal with such mutiny. “We’ll face it when we come to it.”

Peers have already formed a cross-party pressure group as they seek to define themselves as a loveable slice of – literally – peerless British wisdom and eccentricity, without which the nation cannot possibly function.

It is not yet clear who will emerge more damaged: Clegg for pushing something few voters want, Cameron for losing the new boundaries on which his best hope of an overall majority in 2015 rests, Ed Miliband for looking opportunistic, or peers for over-reaching themselves. But it promises to be fun.

In the far-away room that used officially not to exist, where the PM’s press secretary spoke to lobby reporters without a meeting ever taking place, time stands still. The prime minister’s official spokesman (PMOS) may now have an official title and an above-board role in the daily churn, but only very occasionally does his body language suggest he fears the questions may never end.

Yet modernity has its limits. The antique clock beneath which the PMOS sits recently stopped ticking. For most of the week, whatever the query, it was always twenty-four minutes to seven. And then a revelation. Somewhere in the Palace of Westminster is an ancient key. And a clockwinder whose tour of duty eventually takes them down every corridor and up every staircase. Perhaps it’s a bit like painting the Forth Bridge. But with a bit of a time delay.

It would be careless to miss the opportunity of this space by failing to record the success of the cycling debate in Westminster Hall on 23 February. More than 70 MPs crammed in to hear support from all sides for The Times’ Cities Fit For Cycling campaign. Leader of the House Sir George Young was among them.

By comparison, his deputy, David Heath, was holding court in the Commons before a grand total of seven backbench MPs (six Tories, one Lib Dem, no Labour). At issue was a 70-minute debate on the burning issue of… whether Westminster Hall should sit on 20 March. Sometimes they don’t do themselves any favours.

Much grumbling about the use of House time: business managers get prickly at the suggestion that MPs have little to do, while peers slog their way through the NHS, welfare and legal aid bills. Or that the schedule has been mismanaged.

The official blame is laid with the former Labour MPs, now peers, who spent weeks holding up the boundary review, thus delaying everything else. The facts, though, are undeniable. In five months since October, the Commons has considered government legislation on just 18 days.

A diet of largely backbench debates, opposition day motions and one-line whips has left many MPs dissatisfied – and free. “I’m off back home at lunchtime; no point in hanging around,” said one MP the other week. On a Wednesday.

Roland Watson is the political editor of The Times

Tags: Backbench business, Cycling safety, David Cameron, Diary, Issue 46, Lords reform, Nick Clegg, Roland Watson