Lords reform looks set to snarl up the Commons
- 28 June 2012
- From the section UK Politics
Is the second intifada about to hit the Commons?
The first - the months-long Maastricht rebellion in the mid 1990s - is still seared into the institutional memory of the Commons: the late nights, the long speeches, and the endless points of order from Bill Cash (which eventually provoked the then Speaker, Bernard Weatherill, into a most unparliamentary expression of frustration). It demonstrated the ability of determined dissidents to stop a government with a Commons majority in its tracks.
The House of Lords Reform Bill may be about to lurch into a similar procedural quagmire.
The fun will start with a two-day second reading debate on 9 and 10 July. That will see the first procedural battle, over whether the debate will be allowed to continue through the night, which would require a vote to cancel the normal "moment of interruption" at which the Commons normally moves to an adjournment debate. Since the government is already being criticised for setting a time limit on the debate of a major constitutional change, it might be smart to avoid a test of strength and allow MPs to sit all night, if they really, really want.
And that same logic may apply to the much heralded programme motion which, for most bills, sets out the timetable for considering the bill, section by section, and which Ed Miliband has already pledged to oppose.
One suggestion is that the prospect of a Tory uprising sufficient to defeat a programme motion might deter the government from putting it down in the first place….but the Leader of the Commons, Sir George Young, has just told MPs that the programme motion will be put immediately after the vote on the second reading. Still, it's quite possible that, at the last moment, a government whip will cry "not moved!"
Those decisions will depend on the whipping, and whether the Tory dissidents can be brought back into the fold. A lot of upwardly-mobile backbenchers - many so ambitious that if they stand in one place for long enough, a small pool of drool accumulates around their feet - are clearly sounding off at the moment. But will they hold firm if the price is to be passed over for ministerial office?
There is much talk of a "soft three-line whip" in which the stern warnings delivered to dissidents are softened by a nudge and a wink and the subliminal implication that the Conservative hierarchy isn't serious and is offering purely nominal support, to appease Nick Clegg. That might prove to be wishful thinking. So a test of character looms for potential rebels.
When committee stage proceedings begin, in the autumn, detailed debate will take place on the floor of the House. The government is offering 10 days for this stage of the bill - but if it doesn't get its programme motion, it can expect the debates to drag on rather longer. And there are some high-powered issues to chew over - the balance of power between the Commons and the new Senate (or whatever it is to be called), the proportion to be elected or appointed, the presence of the Church of England bishops (excluding them would come close to disestablishment of the state church, so antidisestablishmentarianism may become a factor) and much, much more.
How long is taken on each subject, and whether each debate went through the night, would then depend on Labour, and their willingness to support closure motions to bring each section of the debate to a vote. Labour will decide that on a case by case basis, depending on the importance of the issue and the weariness of their troops.
But the biggest advantage for the dissidents of defeating the programme motion, is that it makes it much easier to get key amendments discussed and voted on - a smart government business manager will always shape the programme motion in such a way that inconvenient amendments won't be reached before time runs out.
Without a motion those who want changes - a referendum, the removal of the bishops, or whatever - will see their ideas debated as long as they've managed to produce an amendment that is in order.
Chris Bryant, who's been batting for Labour in the media on Lords Reform (even though his shadow ministerial job is immigration), expects the bill to reach a third reading in the end, probably with the addition of a referendum, and the subtraction of the bishops. If that happens, reform looks highly probable, because the Commons can then force the bill into law via the Parliament Act.
At which point the Lords face the classic dilemma which confronted their predecessors a century ago, between "hedgers" who will seek to minimise the damage (as they see it) and "ditchers" who will fight to the last, and probably bring the government's legislative programme to a halt, in the process.
If the bill fails, the spotlight falls on Nick Clegg. Having failed to deliver either of his party's key constitutional objectives, electoral reform and Lords reform, could he survive? Or might his party, for the third time in his short parliamentary lifetime, dump its leader?