Landale Online: Why voting change deal is on the cards
Peers are preparing to try to agree a deal to end the stand-off in the House of Lords over the government's plans to change the way MPs are elected.
Why do I say this?
1. Public statements by both sides. The leader of the Lords, Lord Strathclyde, told peers this afternoon he was "hopeful" that today's debate would be "somewhat more speedy" than yesterday and talked of the need "to find ways to respect the conventions that the House passes government business in reasonable time". For Labour, Lord Falconer said: "What has made this House successful over the years in finding solutions to the sorts of problems we currently face and I have made clear....that I am willing on behalf of this party to discuss and reach a conclusion - whether on procedure or the substance - in order to bring an end to this position."
2. The mood among peers. They talk of a change of atmosphere in the Lords today after their all night sitting, a sense that both sides are beginning to contemplate the possibility of pulling back from the brink.
3. Both sides agreed to end debate early this afternoon. This does not just mean they are knackered. It means the so-called "usual channels", the private talks between frontbenches, have opened up again. They were not talking last night. It means they have both realised that another all-night session on Tuesday would test the stamina and patience of their troops.
4. Pressure behind the scenes from David Cameron and Nick Clegg. Both men have made it overwhelmingly clear to government peers that their over-riding priority is to secure the bill and get their referendum on electoral changes fixed in the diary for 5 May. In other words, by implication, they are prepared to do a deal to achieve that objective. Nota bene: A referendum on elections and a cut in the number of MPs was at the heart of the deal between the Tories and Lib Dems in the coalition agreement.
5. Public hints of a willingness to deal. In their latest edition of the news sheet, The Overnighter, the government whips say: "There can be no fundamental concessions on this Bill." By implication, they are thus prepared to make modest concessions.
6. Fears the row could have long term consequences. Such has been the rancour between all sides that many peers feel that the stand-off risks permanently poisoning relations in the Lords. There is lots of talk of Commons habits being introduced into the Lords, where compromise always used to trump confrontation. There is a lot of legislation coming down the tracks, not least Lords reform itself, and some peers are looking to the long game.
So where might the compromise come? Labour appears to have conceded privately that it is unlikely to achieve its main aim of forcing the government to split the bill, so that the referendum rules are separated from the boundary changes. So the most likely area where a deal could be done is on the detail of the boundary changes themselves and the cut in the number of MPs.
There are three potential areas for negotiation:
1. The flexibility in the size of the new constituencies. Currently the bill says all seats must be no more than 5% above or below a new average size of around 70,000 voters, a quota established by dividing the number of voters by the number of seats. Labour want that figure to be 10%, a greater flexibility that would sort out a lot of technical problems of constituencies crossing seas or county boundaries.
2. The scale of public involvement in deciding the new boundaries. The government wants to end the current practice of holding local public inquiries to agree the maps. Labour wants a stronger appeals process.
3. The size of the House of Commons. The Bill currently reduces the House of Commons from 650 MPs to 600. Labour says this rigs the system in favour of the Conservatives.
Both sides could in theory do a deal on any of these issues but my guess is that they will do something on the percentage size of the constituencies.
The government would get its bill and a referendum on 5 May.
Labour would have taken on the new coalition forces in the House of Lords and made them blink, putting down a marker to the prime minister that his effective majority in the upper house is only that, an effective majority, and that he cannot win on all his legislation.
Tonight (Tuesday) all parties are meeting collectively to assess where they stand. There is still some way to go, and there will be more debate tomorrow (Wednesday), but a possible end game is in sight.