Steep hill to climb?
- 8 January 2013
- From the section UK Politics
What might the arrival of Lord Hill of Oareford as Leader of the Lords portend for the Upper House?
His predecessor, Lord Strathclyde, had looked increasingly world-weary at the Dispatch Box, and seemed downright irritable when it became clear that Labour and the Liberal Democrats were cooperating on an amendment to ditch the current review of Parliamentary Boundaries, and so deal a serious blow to Conservative election hopes.
So his departure, after 25 years on the Conservative front bench, was not a total surprise.
But the boundaries saga might provide an early baptism of fire for the new Leader. A vote on an amendment to the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill, to kill the boundary review, is due on Monday.
It could see Conservative and Lib Dem ministers voting in opposing lobbies for the first time. Or maybe not. One interesting nuance in this week's Coalition mid-term review is this carefully worded promise: "We will provide for a vote in the House of Commons on the Boundary Commission's* proposals for changes to constituencies."
Does that imply that the Conservatives will take the line that decisions about Commons seats should be left to the Commons, and that the issue won't be forced to a vote in the Lords?
Even so, Lord Hill can expect a tough time. The government has been defeated 58 times during Lord Strathclyde's leadership of the Lords, thanks to various combinations of Conservative and Lib Dem rebels and crossbenchers and Labour peers - and there is little doubt that the defeats will continue under any future leader.
As a veteran of John Major's Downing Street in the Maastricht era, Lord Hill is no novice at counter insurgency…and he may be able to bond with his Lib Dem deputy Lord McNally, who served in James Callaghan's Downing Street in even more beleaguered circumstances.
More important, though, will be Lord Hill's ability to bond with his own backbenchers, who have become quite a rebellious bunch. As a relatively new arrival - he was ennobled in 2010, and has served as an education minister ever since - he may be more attuned to the new generation of Tory peers, although some may be rather envious of his spectacular promotion from junior minister to Cabinet office. Of course, the flip side is that he may find it difficult to bond with the old lags, and perhaps with those who might have coveted his job. It is easy to imagine a number of experienced Tory peers attacking their breakfast eggs with more than usual vim, as they contemplate the way they have been leapfrogged.
Lord Strathclyde clearly found it increasingly difficult to deal with his Lib Dem colleagues, and they might be able to make a new start with Lord Hill. He won some approving notices from them in his role as an education minister, but all the charm and punctilious courtesy in the world won't change the difficult dynamics of coalition life. There might be a bit more good will around, but that will only take him so far. The Party games will continue.
One outstanding question will be the attitude he takes to internal reform of the workings of the House. Recommendations to improve scrutiny of legislation and Government policy in the 2011 Goodlad Report have been parked in assorted internal committees for some time now. Will Lord Hill emerge as the kind of wild-eyed radical who thinks the Lord Speaker, rather than a government minister, should choose who should put supplementaries at question time, if more than one peer attempts to speak? Might he even consider taking questions on House business at regular intervals? Insiders are keen to see whether these, seemingly trivial, changes could at least be tried out.
But for me, the biggest issue is the clout Lord Hill will carry with his colleagues in the Cabinet. Most MPs have little real understanding of the way the Lords works, and can easily get into a terrible tangle, if they treat the Lords as simply a posher version of the Commons.
In the early New Labour years, the then government Chief Whip, the late Dennis Carter, printed off a form that ministers were required to fill out, detailing their plans to get legislation through the Upper House. The idea was to get them to focus on how they would square their proposals with, for example, crossbenchers and key committee chairs. It's a good idea, and could bear being adopted by the Coalition - but ultimately, if Lord Hill is to be responsible for getting legislation though, powerful Cabinet ministers will have to be prepared to listen to his advice.
And he will have to show he can deliver if it is taken.
Life in governments becomes much easier if the House of Lords does not disrupt ministers' plans too much. The sudden and tragic death of Lord Williams of Mostyn, the Labour leader in the Lords, in 2003, caused problems for Tony Blair, because his successor was less attuned to the mood of the House. His considerable intellect and ability to address the legion of senior lawyers on the crossbenches in fluent barrister-ese, made him an effective persuader. Without him, the government tripped more often.
The Coalition can't afford a similar dip in performance, in what are much more difficult circumstances.
* Coalition Kremlinologists are getting quite excited about this apostrophe. There are, in fact, four boundary commissions, one each for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland - so does the use of "Commission's" rather than "Commissions' " imply that the government will only attempt to enact the recommendations of the Commission for England - allowing the nationalist parties to support changes in England that are crucial to Conservative prospects at the next election? And has this cunning plan been revealed by a Freudian slip in punctuation?