Conservative Diary

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Peer pressure

By Paul Goodman

Screen shot 2010-11-19 at 08.17.07 During the last Parliament, there was an unofficial Conservative whip in the Commons on Lords Reform.  In theory, the issue's a constitutional matter, and thus subject to a free vote.  In practice, the leadership supported a part-elected, part-appointed Upper House, and word went around that members of the front bench should support this view.  Like some other Shadow Ministers, I none the less voted against such a second chamber and for the status quo, because a question would arise in the event of change: namely, which elected chamber had greater legitimacy?  In my view, it would take a written constitution to decide, and the consequences of such major constitutional change hadn't been thought through.

I'm thus a supporter of the present House of Lords, and will be pleased at the elevation of some of my former  colleagues when the list of new peers is announced at eleven this morning.  However, I suspect that my view is, increasingly, a minority one, and that the idea of patronage is out of temper with the times.  We know that Andrew Feldman, the co-Party Chairman, and Stanley Fink, the joint Treasurer, are on the list.  As Mark Field has warned, lists of former MPs from all parties will be pored over fiercely by the media in relation to the expenses scandal.  The list was being finalised in Downing Street during the rumpus over David Cameron's personal photographer, and we know that Number Ten was nervous.

This isn't a party political matter, since some of the Labour and, doubtless, Liberal Democrat names will be controversial.  All this tells us that the after-shock of the events of the last Parliament is still being felt.  There have been some improvements in the way the Commons does business since May.  Select Committee Chairman are now elected rather than appointed, and there is a back-bench business committee.  However, the Government's policy on Parliamentary reform is incoherent.  On the one hand, it wants to reduce the number of Commons seats, which is a good thing.  On the other, it wishes not to cut the size of the Executive - leaving it proportionately larger.

Senior 1922 Committee Members aren't impressed, and nor are the new intake (or the increasingly outspoken independent-minded section of it, anyway).  The trend for some time has been for local MPs to work as constituency champions rather than Westminster operators, and there's a tension between this change and MPs also doubling up as Ministers.  However, the controversy over today's appointments (and some there will be) won't be sparked just by gathering public incomprehension of the patronage principle, let alone by voters studying closely the Government's manoevres over the size of the Executive in relation to the legislature.

Rather, it will be a sign that the constitutional problems left to Britain by Labour haven't been resolved.  The implementation of the Conservative manifesto wouldn't have done so entirely, but on all matters other than Lords reform its main measures would have helped: a British Bill of Rights, a veto by English and Welsh MPs on legislation affecting their countries, the renegotiation of three sets of EU powers.  Eric Pickles's localist revolution has survived the Coaltion.  But these other proposals have been kicked into the long grass.  Only the proposal to elect or part-elect the Upper House has survived: one that's now being pushed to keep the Liberal Democrats happy, without consideration of the consequences.

When I asked how blue the Coalition is in a series recently, I gave it high marks, rightly or wrongly, for deficit reduction, radical public service reform and localism.  In these respects, it compares favourably to the great Thatcher Governments of the 1980s, and deserves support.  But it gets the wooden spoon for coherent constitutional reform, of which the reaction to today's appointments will be a sign.


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