By Paul Goodman
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1.45pm Update Conor Burns said on the Politics Show earlier this afternoon that some of the names of signatories have been withheld. No doubt they will be issued in due course - all part of the chess game with the Whips and, more particularly, Downing Street over the bill.
The Times's (£) Sam Coates has tweeted the story. I will link to it as soon as it's up.
The letter apparently says that the bill "threatens to pile a constitutional crisis on top of an economic crisis", and has been sent to all Conservative MPs. It is part of the tactical chess game that I wrote about earlier this morning.
The Whips will find it hard to get MPs who've signed a letter opposing the programme motion to support it, but some slippage must be assumed. However, there will be some bill opponents who haven't signed the letter.
So all in all, I will be surprised in the event of a programme motion being tabled if the number of rebels is below 50. The figure that the lobby will be watching out for is 82 - one more than the big revolt over an EU referendum last year.
And the number of signatories must less likely that a programme motion is tabled at all.
The letter says:
“The Lords Bill is a measure of profound constitutional significance... It threatens to pile a constitutional crisis on top of an economic crisis.
“Specifically what is now proposed will undermine the primacy of the Commons, with competing chambers which will lead to legislative gridlock. It will create hundreds of unaccountable new elected politicians at a time when we as a party are committed to reducing the cost of politics an; gd it will produce a chamber which is less expert, less diverse and significantly more expensive than the present one.
“The commitments in our 2010 election manifesto and in the Programme for government - to seek consensus and to bring forward proposals - have been fulfilled. We hope you will support us in giving this Bill the full and unrestricted scrutiny it deserves.”
Gavin Barwell, Conservative MP for Croydon Central, is this week's ConservativeHome Diarist. Follow Gavin on Twitter.
House of Lords reform
Much of my week has been spent on the contentious issue of House of Lords reform. Back in July, I was appointed to a Joint Committee of both Houses of Parliament that was tasked with scrutinising the Government’s draft House of Lords Reform Bill. Since then, we have considered a huge amount of evidence from proponents and opponents of reform and from various constitutional experts (self-appointed or otherwise), and on Monday and Wednesday we had the first two of three meetings where votes are cast to agree the exact wording of the report.
Being a member of this Committee has been one of the most interesting things I have done in my nearly two years in Parliament. As the recent discussions on ConservativeHome illustrated, House of Lords reform is an emotive issue that divides our party. The same is true of the Labour Party and even the Liberal Democrats to a lesser extent, so the divisions on the Committee are not along party lines and we have seen some unusual alliances!
Whatever one’s views on the issue of principle - whether those who have a hand in making the law ought to be elected - if the Government does decide to proceed, it is important that it does so in a way that doesn’t undermine the primacy of the House of Commons nor the relationship between an MP and his constituents, and doesn’t significantly increase the cost of politics. The Committee will make some sensible suggestions as to how the Government could improve its proposals and I hope our deliberations will result in changes that will make the proposals more palatable to ConservativeHome readers.
The Queen comes to Parliament
On Tuesday, I had a brief and welcome interlude from the arcane details of House of Lords reform when Her Majesty came to Westminster Hall to receive addresses from both Houses of Parliament and to see the Diamond Jubilee window, a gift paid for by MPs and Peers from all political parties. The window was the idea of my colleague Michael Ellis. His ennoblement is surely only a matter of time…
When Her Majesty ascended to the throne, Winston Churchill was still Prime Minister. In a period of profound changes to our country, she has been a symbol of continuity and her record of public service is one that stands as an example to all of us.
A Budget that rewards work
At 11.30 on Wednesday morning, I rushed from the Joint Committee meeting to grab a seat for Prime Minister’s Questions and the Budget that followed it. PMQs was a rather tepid affair - Ed Miliband clearly felt he couldn’t ask about the Health & Social Care Bill again, and that’s the only topic he really feels comfortable with, so he opted for some non-partisan questions about Afghanistan and some worthy questions about the Riot Damages Act.
The Chancellor delivered the Budget with real confidence - he is one Minister who has grown in stature in office. It was good to see that in the independent Office for Budget Responsibility’s forecasts of growth, the number of people claiming unemployment-related benefits and borrowing had all improved slightly since the Autumn Statement.
Nicky Morgan, Conservative MP for Loughborough, is this week's ConservativeHome Diarist. Follow Nicky on Twitter.
Being an MP requires the ability to keep a lot of spinning plates in the air at the same. I am asked to write this week’s diary as I am standing in the playground at Queen’s Park, Loughborough with my 4 year old son. Trying to concentrate on a telephone call and also wonder why my son hasn’t reached the end of the long covered slide (so where is he and what is he doing?) at the same time is not that easy.
Life in Westminster doesn’t involve any less juggling. There is so much going on at the moment – although we are waiting for more legislation to find its way back from the Lords to the Commons. This is a relatively quiet week for my duties as PPS to Universities and Science Minister, David Willetts MP. Working with David is a pleasure. Given his studious reputation I aim to confine my advice to him to backbench feeling on BIS policy as colleagues have relayed it to me. I try to catch up with him during or after divisions of the Commons – divisions are often the only time backbench MPs get to really talk to Ministers about a pressing matter which is why voting electronically would be such a bad idea. Standing shoulder to shoulder with a Minister, when they cannot escape, is an invaluable time to remind them about the pressing need of a project or group in my constituency.
Monday morning sees me talking to Years 10 and 11 citizenship classes at Burleigh College in Loughborough about politics. The Year 11 group is mixed and not all of them want a lesson with their local MP. I get some good questions though about tuition fees, capital punishment and the Clare’s Law pilots – and I try to get them thinking about some topical issues.
Jesse Norman, MP for Hereford and South Herefordshire, is this week's author of ConHome's new parliamentary diary. Follow Jesse on Twitter.
What a day! Spring is in the air, the birds are nesting busily and the Black Mountains look absolutely gorgeous. Yet again it hits home how lucky I am to represent Hereford and South Herefordshire. Not every constituency selection meeting is the start of a love affair. Mine took place on a cold wet December evening in 2006, and there was a huge shout when I was chosen. I learned later that this was because that meant the bar was open. But it still feels like first love to me.
Never more so than tonight, when I see Tune for the Blood, a new locally-made film about young farmers in Herefordshire. It casts an extraordinary light on the lives of eight young people, but still more on what it is to live in the countryside; the value of community, of personal responsibility, of living close to the land. It was made on a shoestring, and I am proud to have helped to raise money for it locally. It should be compulsory viewing for young people in cities—including Hereford—and for the many thousands of urban politicians and journalists who know nothing about rural areas.
2012 is the Year of the Co-op, and I’m at a board meeting of the Conservative Co-operative Movement to plan our latest publication. The Left has long regarded co-ops, mutuals and employee-owned businesses as its exclusive domain, so much so that the Co-operative Party is formally affiliated with Labour. Neither thing makes sense: these organisations are often highly entrepreneurial, indeed small-c capitalist, in nature, and they were all but ignored under Messrs Blair and Brown. The good news is that this government is already doing more for them than anyone ever imagined five years ago. Onwards!
I have an op-ed in the Times today (£) arguing that House of Lords Reform should not be a priority. One reason is that it will inevitably clash with a referendum over Scotland. How can you decide an absolutely fundamental issue of governance when you don’t know the shape of the Union, or if there’ll be one? I’ve no idea. The point is echoed in a Financial Times leader, and gets picked up by Nicholas Watt of the Guardian, who likens it to an argument used by Gordon Brown in 1998… er, thanks Nick.
Having just been elected to the Public Accounts Committee, Monday lunchtime sees me ascending to the gods in the Palace of Westminster to take tea with Committee Chair Margaret Hodge in her spacious oak panelled office which is a perk of the job, located on the Upper Committee corridor. She has a miniscule lunch of a mug of soup and a ryvita, which wouldn’t satisfay me or an anaemic chinchilla, as we chat about the committee’s work and her working style. We end up shooting the breeze about family members of hers who live near Peterborough – and have roads named after them. As Maggie said of Gorby, I think I can do business with Margaret.
Later, I take part in the Iran debate in the Commons. Surely the Commons at its best. Thoughtful, well researched speeches, agreement across party based on common sense and the national interest - as well as mutual respect for opposing approaches to this foreign affairs crisis. William Hague excelling in the job he was born to do – his speech authoritative and yet undogmatic. A bravely unfashionable outing for John Baron (short on supporters for his peacenik viewpoint) but sincere nevertheless and outstanding speeches by a host of colleagues, particularly Ben Wallace, who argued from a position of expertise as the joint Chair of the All Party Group on Iran that it was vital to allow political and diplomatic efforts to be exhausted before committing ourselves to miltary action. It can’t be long before he gets a job on the Front Bench surely?
Child benefit and 40p taxpayers
The next day, I attend Chris Chope’s adjournment debate in Westminster Hall on the barmy policy of clobbering higher rate taxpayers by removing their child benefit entitlement. Part of the role of the backbencher is to ask awkward questions and to see what’s behind the curtain, like in the Wizard of Oz. Chris isn’t everyone’s skinny organic latte but I admire his tenacity and forensic mind. Treasury Minister David Gauke, an old mucker from my Brent days, plays a chaarcteristically straight bat. He gives nothing away and will go far, not least because he’s clever and personable.
Scotch and Speakers
That evening, I repair to the State Rooms in the Speaker’s House for a dinner in honour of the Canadian Speaker, an unfeasibly young man called Stephen Scheer. I drift into dinner accompanied by two stunning blondes – Nadine Dorries and Caroline Dineage - and seat myself next to the Speaker’s Chaplain, Rose Hudson-Wilkin, a Hackney vicar who is a joy to break bread with. The evening is completed via a sojourn to the Smoking Room, with a few Scotch and sodas shared with Local Government Minister Bob Neill, a font of stories from his time as a criminal barrister in the East End, Nadine and Mark Francois (another Brent veteran and who I am fond of despite him being a very important Whip!) We agree that Ken Dodd got off his tax rap because he was funny and Lester Piggott didn’t because he wasn’t.
Wednesday afternoon, I drag myself along to a Delegated Legislation committee meeting on the new schools admissions regulations. They’re usually like watching undercoat dry but this one’s a treat. The chirpy Shadow Schools Minister Kevin Brennan holds forth on the horrors of grammar schools (I went to one myself incidentally) and I can’t resist wading in, completely unprepared, to biff Labour for their levelling down, class war backward looking approach. I wasn’t very Cameron-compliant but if you get a “hear hear” from Nick Boles and the saintly Nick Gibb, you must be ticking a few boxes in A-List Towers.
Labour and the NHS
I pop in and out of the Chamber through the afternoon and watch Andy Burnham’s red faced histrionics on the NHS Risk Register and Andrew Lansley’s fact-based, calm and reasoned demolition of Labour’s opportunistic motion. Mark Simmonds too, as ever, makes a very skilful peroration. He argued with passion that the Conservatives would never privatise the NHS, that he uses the NHS but that those who cared about the NHS know that it simply has to be reformed and that Labour were hypocritical in backing a greater role for the independent healthcare in their 2010 manifesto but eschewing it for partisan political reasons over the Health and Social Care Bill. As the vote is declared, I follow Andrew out into the corridor behind the Speaker’s Chair and gently tap his arm with a supportive “well done”. I feel a sense of solidarity as a Cambridgeshire neighbour and typically he tells me that he gave Peterborough City Hospital a helpful name check which would please me.
Don't mess with Jackie Doyle-Price
Thursday morning and the talk of the tea room is the Gunfight at the OK Corral (otherwise known as the rumble in Strangers Bar). I tell a lame joke along the lines of “…they shouldn’t have got rid of Top Totty…” With charges pending, I can’t say too much but apart from three beefy Northern Tory MPs the hero(ine) of the night was… the blond firecracker that is Thurrock’s Jackie Doyle-Price, who came over all Peggy Mitchell in the Queen Vic: “No one messes wiv mah staff!!!!”
Jacob Rees-Mogg, comedian
Thursday evening finds the whole Parliamentary Party trekking wildebeest-like across Lambeth Bridge for a bonding dinner in the bowels of a modern Thameside hotel, which seemed also to be hosting the cistern and urinals manufacturers’ expo, or some such jamboree. Speech of the night was not from the inestimable Keith Simpson with his usual hilarious party piece as the head of a minor public school but the comedic phenomenon of Jacob Rees-Mogg, whose dry wit is actually arid and who’s timing is sublime. His idea of offering Nick Boles as a hostage to the Lib Dems during particularly fraught Coalition negotiations brought the house down. I think, the voters of Somerset permitting, he will be a regular oratorical turn for colleagues in the coming years.
Ed Miliband, Tory secret weapon
An early start on Friday morning - to Portcullis House and a meeting of the whole party again, with presentations by polling gurus, party big cheeses, Downing Street beautiful people and a few “breakout” sessions. The sheer weight of Ed Milband as a drag anchor on Labour was unveiled and was quite startling - as was the disastrous failure of Labour to even come close to regaining any semblance of economic credibility. The PM has a tiger in his tank and is bright eyed and bushy tailed and the session finishes with Boris pressing all the right rhetorical hot buttons for his Parliamentary colleagues ahead of the London Mayoral election in May.
As for me, at the end, I bolt for the tube and then a train from Kings Cross and my fine Fenland City. I’m going back to Peterborough not to prepare for government but my speaking engagement tonight for my colleague Louise Mensch, in nearby Corby. Me, I get all the top gigs! I’ve quite enjoyed this diary lark. As Mae West reputedly said: “Keep a diary and one day it will keep you." However, my stint as a cut price Samuel Pepys or Alan Clark (without the coven), is at an end.
> Next week's diarist will be Jesse Norman MP