Penny Mordaunt is Conservative MP for Portsmouth North.
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Yesterday House of Lords reform was described by BBC’s Andrew Neil as “the straw which could break the Coalition's back”. I doubt that the irony of a head-to-head on that topic between Lord Oakeshott (who, after disagreeing with coalition policy, ceased to be its Treasury Spokesman but remains a Lib Dem peer) and Philip Davis MP (who, after disagreeing with coalition policy, has lunch) was lost on many Sunday Politics viewers.
You can watch their exchange here but I will sum up Oakeshott’s arguments as to why Conservative MPs ought to support the Lords Reform proposals:
a) It’s in your manifesto, you dummy
b) It’s in the coalition programme, so button it
c) If you don’t vote for this then we are taking our bat home on constituency reform
d) You are a dinosaur/ toff/ head-banger etc.
Let me deal with these distracting “arguments” swiftly. The 2010 Conservative manifesto called for a consensus to be built for a mainly elected second chamber. The preceding sentence mentioned our support for the first-past-the-post system for Westminster elections. The Coalition agreement says that “proposals will be brought forward for a wholly or mainly elected upper chamber on the basis of proportional representation”, and that, “the committee will come forward with a draft motion by December 2010”. It is this motion that is giving many Members of both Houses cause for concern.
There is no intellectual inconsistency in a Conservative questioning the contents of the Draft Bill; questioning whether PR, the system rejected en masse in a referendum post-dating the Coalition programme, is the best method of election, or considering whether the Bill actually meets its own objectives in improving democracy and retaining primacy of the Commons. Neither is it inconsistent to raise doubt as to whether this is the most pressing constitutional concern we face, with the West Lothian question unresolved and Scotland considering leaving the UK. Nor to suggest that other, more pressing issues outside the area of constitutional reform which require parliamentary time, such as the design and funding of long term adult care or the Eurozone crisis, should be more of a priority. The assertion that as Government policy develops a Coalition MP cannot raise questions or seek to improve it is a nonsense, and, coming from the Liberal side of the Coalition, er, how can I put this, a tad self-unaware.
Why is it acceptable for Liberal Democrat colleague to raise concerns they have about one area of Coalition policy, but not another? I think I am correct in characterising Andrew George MP as not a huge fan of the Health Bill. That Bill sprang from the Coalition programme which stated, amongst other things: “We will significantly cut the number of health quangos. We will cut the cost of NHS administration by a third and transfer resources to support doctors and nurses on the front line. We will strengthen the power of GPs as patients’ expert guides through the health system by enabling them to commission care on their behalf….”
Does Lord Oakeshott think Andrew, as a Coalition MP, was wrong to raise his concerns? Or does he think that the NHS is just not as important as the House of Lords? No, I expect Lord Oakeshott would defend his colleague’s right to raise his concerns in the chamber, and to put them on his leaflets too. I think that I am also correct in saying that Andrew George MP raised concerns about the Lords Reform Bill, having heard him question what merits a second elected chamber will bring and propose that the cash saved might be better spent on something else.
The point is that Liberals have not got a 100% track record of supporting the Coalition programme, and neither have some Conservative colleagues. Yet the Coalition survives. Lord Oakeshott’s opinion: that for any coalition MP to raise concerns about any aspect of Coalition policy breaks any obligation to continue with the Programme for Government, cannot have taken into account events of the last two years. He is also in danger of giving the impression that his support for the Coalition has not been to work together for the benefit of his country, but rather as a grubby trade-off to secure his personal hobby-horse. He forgets we debated the ‘Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act’ on the basis of ensuring equalised constituency sizes and we were open about our opposition to AV. The Liberals voted that legislation through. They have committed to it in a fair more profound way than any inter-party compact – they voted in Parliament. The public are likely to take a dim view of such a retraction, and are even less forgiving when it is done by someone who claims to be the defender of democratic accountability. If Andrew George MP can question the Health Bill, then he can question House of Lords reform. He is part of the Coalition but he is not on autopilot. And unless you are prepared to argue that he and other Liberals are unable to dissent from anything government asks for their support on, then you will have a hard time being taken seriously in arguing that your coalition partners should have a that standard applied to each of them.
Many have concerns regarding these reforms. Top of the list is that even if you are content with an elected second chamber it is not clear how the primacy of the House of Commons would be maintained. The only reason that the Parliament Acts have legitimacy, the only reason that the House of Commons can legitimately claim the power of the purse, is because it is elected in contradistinction to the House of Lords. It must be understood that an elected Upper House would not simply fill the void left by the abolished House of Lords. The House of Lords has a settled and accepted view of its position in the constitution. A new House composed of elected members could not be expected simply to conform to that view. The position of the Commons may be weakened by the reduction in the number of MPs and the concomitant increase in the ‘payroll vote’ as the number of ministers remains the same. When a government of whatever stripe whips through an unpopular measure and asserts its cherished primacy against an elected Upper House it is inevitable that the latter, with the weight of popular support behind it, will push back. It will do so with a mandate achieved through a system of proportional representation which according to many of the very people promoting the Draft Bill is a better and more democratic system of election. The promoters of the Bill must accept that to change the composition of the Upper House is to inevitably change the dynamic between the two Houses, as Lord Oakeshott did admit on yesterday's Sunday Politics.
Where MPs have ideas about how things can be improved, or see flaws with a policy then they should feel able to say so. Sometimes compromises are struck, sometimes minds are changed, sometimes an MP abstains or votes against. That is democracy. Even in a Coalition… no, especially in a Coalition. This is not easy for our leadership, and it is largely to their credit that the Coalition remains strong, credible and good-natured. Despite the tough and sometimes controversial decisions made for the good of the country- to reduce the deficit, reform public services and welfare state- public support and understanding for the Coalition remains strong. This is partly because they recognise the scale of challenge at hand and our resolve to tackle it, but also because they can see Parliamentary democracy in action. Lord Oakeshott has no appreciation of that, or the double standards and double dealing he exhibited on Mr Neil’s sofa. However his credibility need not be lost for good: there is a route back for him to restore his chosen mantle as the champion of democratic values – namely to ask his party leader to grant a free vote on this issue for every Coalition MP.