Lords reform: How the Commons war will be fought
- 10 July 2012
- From the section UK Politics
The 10 o'clock rule? A closure motion? Standing Order 29? Not familiar with these pieces of parliamentary arcanery? Well, you soon might be, if you cast even a passing glance at the uncertain progress of the House of Lords Reform Bill.
With the government's plan to set strict limits on debating time now withdrawn, brace yourself for an orgy of parliamentary warfare, the filibust-up of a generation that will consume the House of Commons, its time, its energy and its passion, potentially for months.
This will be a war requiring stamina, imagination and low cunning on all sides. It will be fought according to the rules laid down by Erskine May, the bible of parliamentary procedure.
The weapons will be motions, amendments, new clauses, points of order, and speeches of interminable tedium. The warriors will require particular skills - the ability to speak at length while remaining in order, the energy to stay awake through the night - and the possession of a stout heart and patient bladder.
Tactics not used since either the European Communities (Amendment) Bill 1992-1993 - that's Maastricht to you and me - will be dusted off and used again in anger. Others will look back even further to the Parliament (No. 2) Bill in 1969, the last time a government was brave - or foolhardy? - enough to attempt Lords reform.
The government has argued that this bill needs 10 days of detailed committee stage consideration. That is the bit of the legislative process when MPs go through a bill line by line - in theory - to make sure it works.
Normally this happens in a quiet committee room in a parliamentary byway. But Lords reform, being a constitutional issue, will by convention be considered in detail by the House of Commons as a whole - essentially as a very large committee. So crucially, if Lords reform is on the agenda, then there is no parliamentary time for anything else.
The chances are that work on the Lords bill will begin at length from this September.
The rebels' aim will be to talk the bill out, scrutinising the measure to death so that the government runs out of patience and gives up. So the rebel MPs will need to be able to talk at length but also remain relevant.
They cannot read names from the phone book, they have to stay in order otherwise the speaker would ask them to sit down. To filibuster is an art, and not all MPs are up to the task.
Their second task is to draw up as many amendments as they can dredge from their imaginations. If there are no amendments, there is nothing to talk about. And crucially the amendments have to be relevant and in order as well.
This will be the work of the unofficial whips' office that will be set up by the rebels. There will be amendments about the title of the bill, about the preamble, about the order of the clauses. There will be votes on so-called "dilatory motions" demanding that the House do now adjourn. And all that before they get onto the substance.
The government wants 450 peers? Why not 451? Or 452? What about the bishops? How should they be appointed? What about the electoral process? What about the 15 year terms? The potential is almost unlimited. As one rebel Tory MP told me: "We have experience of the Maastricht veterans and wily peers. We know what we are doing."
So they need to talk, they need to amend, but the rebels will also have to vote. On everything. Every clause, every motion, every amendment, every 'clause stand part'. They will vote for each others' amendments and against them.
Voting in the Commons of course requires MPs to pad their way through the division lobbies. That takes up another 15 minutes of precious time. And they won't forget to vote on everything else too, such as Ten Minute Rule motions that have nothing to do with the Lords. The key thing is that the rebels do not need to win, they just need to pass the time. In 1969, the government did not lose a single vote over Lords reform but it did eventually lose the Bill.
So how will the government respond? Robustly.
Their aim will be to make progress. First, I suspect, that they will concertina days together so that the Commons does nothing but consider Lords reform day after day. They could devote the whole of September to it. Eventually this might upset all those MPs who will lose their favourite bills, squashed beneath the Lords steamroller.
Late night ambush
The government will also want to test the mettle of the rebels. They will do this by trying to suspend what is known as the 10 o'clock rule. This is the rule that business ends in the Commons on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 10pm. The government would have to table a motion to suspend this rule. If the government wins the vote on that motion, then MPs would sit through the night.
This would test whether the rebels have the numbers, energy, and amendments to keep debate going through the early hours. The first late night might be fun, but some MPs would tire of the excitement pretty soon. They would also get pretty angry if the whips kept them late on a Thursday, disrupting their constituency meetings on Friday.
The problem for the government is that they too would have to keep their own numbers up during the night and that would test loyalist MPs as well.
The government would also try to pass closure motions. If passed, these end debate on the group of amendments that are currently being discussed. The whips could try this as a late night ambush, keeping their MPs hidden until the vote.
But this is not an automatic procedure for the government. The speaker has to judge that MPs have had enough time to debate the issue, that all views have been aired. The government also has to have enough MPs to win the vote and - this is crucial - it has to have at least 100 members in its division lobby. That could be quite an ask at 3am.
It is also expected that the speaker would have to be generous to rebel MPs and give them considerable leeway if the Commons has voted against the principle of timetabling.
The government could also bring back that trusty old fellow, the guillotine motion. Since the emergence of programme motions in the 1990s, the guillotine has largely fallen into disuse. But it is still there and could be used to curtail debate on particular days.
And then of course there is Standing Order 29. It is too boring to explain all the detail, suffice it to say that it can be used to stop an individual MP speaking and was used recently against Christopher Chope during daylight saving legislation.
In other word, both sides will use every trick in the parliamentary book to win this battle. And we have already had a taster of what is to come.
Jacob Rees-Mogg may turn out to be the government's chief tormentor. At the start if the second reading debate, he raised a point of order asking if the Lords Bill could be considered a hybrid measure, namely one that had private and not just public consequences for the bishops.
Again this is hugely technical and one for the anoraks but a hybrid bill is treated differently and takes ages. Mr Rees-Mogg was seeking to delay the Bill. He was politely rebuffed by the Speaker but the MP has plenty more arrows in his quiver.