The war of the Lords

Written by Total Politics has a free weekly Friday email bulletin. Follow this link to register. on 11 July 2012 in Diary
The first skirmish ended in stalemate, reports Martin Shapland. Now, the long, bloody entrenched war of attrition on Lords reform begins and a referendum may be both inevitable and desirable

So it happened. The government backed down on a programme motion but won a thumping majority at second reading, moving an elected Lords to the next legislative step, or perhaps, steepe – stretching out to the horizon as we enter months of trench warfare.

Coalition loyalists and Tory rebels are eyeballing each other over a constitutional no-man’s land, expecting months, of parliamentary warfare, filibusters, late-night sittings, ambush votes and archaic procedure.

In fact, every obscure trick in the book, specifically - Erskine May, Parliamentary Practice - will be deployed as we enter a debate potentially without end.

The rebels will conduct a close quarters guerrilla war, no quarter asked, no quarter given.

There might be an overwhelming majority in favour of electing the Lords but, as long as the 100 or so rebels can count on Labour refusing to call time, the will of the Commons will be frustrated.

While Labour's refusal to negotiate on a timetable was cynical gutter politics – every single constitutional measure under the last Labour government had a programme motion – Labour has won some sort of tactical victory at least.

For months Miliband has tried, with varying degrees of success, to wedge a divide between the Conservatives and the Lib Dems, Now he’s finally succeeded – ill-will in coalition ranks won’t disappear overnight. 

Winning this fight will need cunning and guile as much as sheer staying power. The coalition can count on Maastricht survivors, such as Ken Clarke and Sir George Young. The rebels will rely on the unfathomable constitutional knowledge of Jacob Rees-Mogg, I just hope he declares his interests – his father is a Lord.

With the government deprived of a majority to force its will, it will either need to grind out and sap the energy of the rebels with months of late-night sittings to win – testing loyalist resolve to breaking point– or ministers will have to cut a deal with Labour. 

The latter option is unpalatable after Labour’s low politics, putting partisan advantage ahead of principal in a way Liberals will find hard to forgive. But it is much preferable.

The opposition have made it clear it doesn’t want the quagmire to last indefinitely, code for: ‘We will enjoy watching you tear yourselves apart but we want to cut a deal eventually.’

A deal can be struck if the will is there and the coalition keeps a cool head. 

Having two or three short terms instead of one 15-year term is workable, and might even bring more sensible rebels like Louise Mensch over to the government.

Further clarification on Commons supremacy will be necessary – getting rid of bishops' automatic entitlement could be negotiated, with care – and the type of voting system might be up for grabs. But the prize Labour wants is a referendum.  

Why does the House of Lords need reform? Because it is stuffed with failed politicians, expenses cheats, criminals, tax-dodgers and fraudsters.

It is crammed with Tory and Labour cronies who brought their way into Parliament. Around 100 are there because their daddy was a Lord. 

They trough at the public’s expense at a rate of £300 a day, if they can be bothered to turn up. Their speaker presides on a sack of wool and they wear cloaks made of rabbit fur.

Most are only there because they were mates with a prime minister or King. They can’t be sacked and they have a death grip on power until they, themselves, expire.

There is no institution in public life riper for mockery, pillory and character assassination.

A referendum to endorse reform need not be feared because the Lib Dems burned their fingers on AV.

We now know from bitter experience that the way to win reform, and the public’s imagination, is to scandalise and cause outrage, not try to persuade.

I’ve always said the Liberal Democrats are too nice. This led to our defeat in the AV referendum, as the 'Yes' campaign sought to use reason and our opponents deployed negative tactics to deadly effect.

It is time to learn from them.

Nick Clegg was humiliated on AV.

He is being ridiculed by the Tories on Lords reform.

If Liberals want payback perhaps they could take it in the form of a hard-hitting campaign against the old parties vested interests in the House of Lords?

The media would call it revenge.

I would call it justice. But the need to clean house is one which is unanswerable.

Tags: House of Lords Reform Bill, Liberal Democrats., Martin Shapland

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