Who won?

Mark D'Arcy
Parliamentary correspondent


In the end, Parliament won.

There was a clear majority in both Commons and Lords for some form of Leveson-style press regulation, and the lesson of the events leading up to Monday's votes on press regulation is that, given enough persistence, a parliamentary majority can find a way to have its way.

And that precedent could reverberate well beyond the issue of press regulation…

What became clear during last weekend was that an alliance of Labour, Lib Dem and Conservative MPs, plus a number of the smaller parties, had the votes to push through amendments to the Crime and Courts Bill to bring in a Leveson-style system. The only way the Conservative section of the government could prevent that was to drop the entire bill, which they were reluctant to do.

And even had they done so, Leveson amendments had already been attached to two other bills in the Lords. So the government would have been confronted with the same choice - allow a vote on the amendments or drop those bills as well.

Some months ago I blogged on an elaborate mechanism to bypass the normal government channels and allow a Leveson Bill to be laid before the Commons - it turns out to be unnecessary. You don't need to bring in a new bill, when you can amend an existing one. In fact, it seems to be possible to write all sorts of things into law in a pretty perfunctory way, during the ping-pong process during which the Lords and Commons deal with each other's amendments, as happened on Monday, when an entire press regulation system was crowbarred into the Crime and Courts Bill in a few hours.

And one of the key procedural lessons of the Leveson saga is that the Lords can add amendments to pretty much any bill they choose on almost any subject they fancy…as Lord Puttnam did with the Defamation Bill, to much huffing from the House authorities.

(Incidentally, part of the deal on Monday was that the Puttnam amendments would be dropped - they'd be removed in the Commons and their lordships wouldn't object…)

In the Commons such amendments would probably be rejected as "out of scope" of a bill, by the Speaker on the advice of the clerks; in the Lords, advice of that kind is offered by the Clerk of the Parliaments, but peers, proudly self-regulating, don't have to accept it, and can go ahead and debate, and accept, any amendments they choose.

To be sure they would probably prefer that a fig-leaf of argument could be made, that the amendments were within scope, and there would need to be an underlying cause that allowed sufficient votes to be mustered. But they have located an important route through the parliamentary maze, for legislating against the will of government.

And these lessons might well be applied to other issues. I've been banging on about the difficulties the Chancellor may encounter if he rejects the views of the Parliamentary Banking Commission on future regulation of the financial sector - he would be a powerful opponent, and in previous parliaments, the fact of his opposition would have been enough to scotch any attempt to bring tougher regulation in. But the lesson of Leveson is that he may not have the votes to stop a tougher system from being foisted on him.

The current Banking Bill provides an obvious vehicle for the influential peers on the Banking Commission (the Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Lawson, etc) to amend. And they would have the option of choosing another bill, if they fancied.

As the excellent Constitution Unit blog, which monitors the voting in government defeats in the Lords, demonstrates, the government can lose there, even if Lib Dem peers mostly stick to the Coalition line - a good turnout of crossbenchers and Labour peers, plus, perhaps a few government peers not turning up, can spell defeat. At which point the government would find itself in the uncomfortable position of opposing tougher banking regulation…

And it could cause more discomfort over a variety of issues - carbon reductions targets, the internet monitoring provisions of the becalmed Communications Data Bill, the funding arrangements for social care, and who knows what else.

The Lords has become pretty ungovernable, and if peers keep lobbing difficult issues at MPs and requiring them to vote against their consciences at regular intervals, things could get pretty messy, especially as the election draws nearer.

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