Steep hill to climb?


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?

Tough time

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.

'Posher Commons'?

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?

Mark D'Arcy Article written by Mark D'Arcy Mark D'Arcy Parliamentary correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    the majority of the lords have outside bussiness interests or are non exec directors or barristers in fact very few of them can really be said to be concerned with lords bussiness or not have vested interests demanding somthing in return as for strathclyde looking world weary diddums the off to make shed loads at somthing nice pension though.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    little old me you are wrong they are considerably more unfair now in the 2005 election labour got 35.7% of the vote and a majority of 66 last election the conservatives got 36.2% and were 19 seats short of a majority

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    A dip in performance suggests that there's been a steady rise of exactly WHAT? Spending more of taxpayers hard earned cash! Seriously, this whole facade is nothing more than a charade, lets keep with good ole GB traditions...democracy etc..They are not needed!

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    You should. They hold the key to keeping a bit of balance and a check on the govt in power.
    And many of the current Lords are ex-MP's and Ministers anyway so can hardly be dismissed in entirety as all amateurs.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    Do we really care what these well intentioned undemocratic amateurs with nothing else to do with their lives think?

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.


    The current boundaries are less unfair than they would be if Cameron got his way - you tell how their plan is Gerrymandering by the way they will countencance equal sized constituencies according to actual population size, rather than their prefered measure that DOES NOT ocunt everyone living in each area......

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    Of course Labour would love for the Lords (or commons) to not agree on the boundary changes. Labour under John Prescott altered the boundaries to radically favour Labour as part of their plan to stay in power for ever.

    Of course rhe Tories want to correct that, to level the playing fields, at the moment it is skewed and totally unfair.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    We certainly have a rebellious Parliament.....

    ....but if you need a sign of the ongoing Omnishambles that is the Govt. then look no further than where those rebellions keep coming from......

    .....from the Tory back benches in the main......

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    Well spotted (the demon apostrophy), I did wonder how on earth the Tories might get the Nationalists, of all stripes, on board. I can't see Plaid Cymru going for it though, they consider themselves 'socialists' as well as nationalists, and getting into bed with the Tories is a big ask. The carrot would have to be huge!

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    A dip in performance is exactly where the economy is headed under these knuckle heads we call the Coalition......



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