Peer review

With all the sound and fury in the Commons this week, an increasingly interesting clash in the Lords has been rather drowned out.

A Labour peer seems to have found a way of driving the final nail into the coffin of the parliamentary boundary review Conservatives have been pushing for. They complain that the electroral system is weighted in favour of Labour, because Labour constituencies tend to be smaller than Conservative ones, and so they need a far bigger share of the vote than Labour to win a Commons majority.

The boundary review was intended to correct this, and also to cut the number of Commons seats from 650 to 600. It was supposed to be approved by Parliament and brought into effect before the next election in 2015. But that was before a Tory uprising derailed the Lib Dems' drive to create an elected House of Lords. In retaliation, Nick Clegg withdrew support for the boundary changes - which makes it very difficult - near impossible - for them to go ahead.

At the moment we have a kind of zombie review, shuffling along without any prospect of actually being put into effect. What happened this week was that the Labour peer Lord Hart put down an amendment to the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill, which would have postponed it beyond the next election. The result was an entertaining kerfuffle in the Lords…

First, the clerk of the Parliaments, the top official of the Upper House, ruled that the amendment was out of order, because it was beyond the scope of the ERA bill. Then that ruling was challenged by Lord Hart, who sought counsel's opinion.

His legal advice was that the timing of Boundary Commission recommendations for changes to constituency boundaries "cannot be divorced from electoral registration" and the "conduct and administration of the next general election" and vice versa...and the subject matters of the Parliamentary Voting Systems and Constituencies Act (PVSC), which proposes changes to the number of parliamentary constituencies, and the ERA are "intertwined". So there.

In the Commons, outside opinions would be irrelevant. The Speaker would rule on the basis of advice from the clerks and that would be that; in the Lords, things are different. Peers pride themselves on being self-regulating, and the final decision on the admissibility of Lord Hart's amendment will be for the House. Given Labour and the Liberals were lined up on this, the committee stage debate scheduled for last Wednesday was postponed until next Monday.

And at the last minute (last night) it emerged that the debate had been postponed again. On this occasion the Lords "usual channels" operated by text message, I'm told.

The first postponement produced some sharp exchanges across the floor of the House, and the second will certainly prompt more complaints. Lord Strathclyde, the Leader of the House, can expect demands for him to announce, and stick to, a definite date for the consideration of the bill to resume. It will be interesting to see if he can do so.

But what all this does tell us is the importance the Conservatives continue to place on a measure which could deliver them 20 or so extra seats at the next election.

Their high command clearly believes there is some way to make the boundary review happen, either in the teeth of Lib Dem resistance or by buying the Lib Dems off in some way. If they really thought it was a dead duck, they wouldn't be going to all this trouble.

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