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The Government's growing problem with the House of Lords

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by Paul Goodman

While the Commons is fiercely scrutinised, the Lords is often ignored.  So it comes about that the struggle of the upper house with the AV Referendum Bill has been reported with wry bafflement, as obscure peers make arcane points through the slow watches of the night.  But what can appear to be comedy may turn out to be tragedy, at least for the Government.

Coalition sources insist that the sole cause of the bill's obstruction is the obstreperous behaviour of Labour peers - that trade union troglodytes are tabling frivolous amendments to block legitimate business.  They stress that record time's been spent on the bill and that no previous opposition has refused to agree a timetable for such a major measure, not even for Lords reform itself.

But I'm picking up indications that not all Conservative peers see it that way, and that there may be trouble ahead for Ministers.  Understanding why means grasping the distinctive culture of the Lords.  In a chamber in which no Party has a majority, persuasion is all: although there are schedules for business, there are no guillotines in the upper house.  Peers aren't asked to vote to cut debate short.

David Cameron is pressing for such a move for the bill.  It would be dressed up as a programming motion, as in the Commons - understandably, since Peers, for reasons obvious to readers with a historical bent, are nervous of guillotines.  No-one knows how the crossbenchers, whose votes could be decisive, would react.  On the one hand, they're exasperated by Labour; on other other, they view the guillotine as a thing of horror.

This is where Conservative backbenchers come in.  They, too, would see the use of programming as a horrid precedent.  Some claim that Labour's being less unreasonable than they may seem.  They say that the Opposition would settle for a variation from constituency quota of over five per cent, plus some kind of independent review process.

At this point, high constitutional principle meets low political practice.  All else being equal, the Party needs a 10 per cent lead over Labour to win a majority.  There are solid reasons for cutting the number of Commons politicians: MPs could each manage another ten thousand or so constituents more.  But the bill will also have the effect of reducing that lead to something between three and five per cent - no knows for sure.

Hence Labour's efforts to block it, Cameron's determination to have it and Clegg's agreement to bind two measures in one bill.  Yoking the AV referendum and the seat reduction into one measure can be viewed as a symbol of the Coalition, with each partner getting something it wants.  And the Deputy Prime Minister must have his referendum on time: after all, it was a main gain for his Party from the Coalition negotiations.

But not all those Conservative Peers are happy.  They're used to seeing bills sent back to the Commons.  They dislike the way in which the Bill was timetabled there: when a man as loyal as Norman Fowler revolts over the Isle of Wight provisions, it's a bad sign for the Government.  Lord Strathcylde's jolly loyal and all that, but he must worry, in his private moments, whether a programming motion would be carried.

And he will, surely, have advised the Prime Minister to that effect.  Gary Gibbon writes that the Government will decide over the weekend whether to make concessions or press for curtailment.  And that's before someone bids for judicial review.  But one thing's for sure: if you think the Lords have kicked up rough over this bill, just wait till they greet Nick Clegg's plan to reform their house out of existence.


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