By Paul Goodman
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Because this bill is neither one thing nor the other, it threatens the stabililty of our constitution
There are two workable models for the House of Lords. The first is for it no longer to be a revising chamber, and for a wholly elected second chamber to replace it as part of a rationalist package of constitutional reform (which would also include a fully-fledged written constitution in which the relationship between the two houses would be set out). The second is for it to continue to be a revising chamber, in which case it is best kept much as it is, since the presence of elected members would only muddy the constitutional waters by raising the inevitable question: which elected House should prevail in the event of a clash?
I prefer the second model. Some ConservativeHome readers would opt for the first, for which John Strafford argued on this site yesterday. There is no doubt that Nick Clegg's plans are a halfway house between the two. They offer the emergence in the Upper House of "senators" elected for a single 15 year terms by proportional representation on regional lists. These pushmepullyous represent the worst of both worlds. On the one hand, no-one who stands for a single 15 year term has an incentive to respond to voters once elected, especially since he or she will be hand-picked for the lists by the party machines. On the other, he or she will be able to claim a democratic mandate – and, in some cases, a greater legitimacy too (in the event of the Senator in question spurning the validity of first-past-the-post).
It also proposes to bring electoral reform through the back door after it was rejected in the AV referendum
In short, Mr Clegg's bill is much the same system for electing senators that Britain currently uses to elect MEPs, but with longer periods in office and (in the Conservative Party's case) doubtless the same restricted rights of candidate selection for members. It goes almost without saying that the bill is the product of a politicianly fix, made without the slightest regard for first principles: if this had been otherwise, it would have worked its way from functions first to membership later. Instead, its main aim is to replace the party machines handpicking peers for appointment…with the party machines handpicking candidates for a regional list – without the slighest care for what this may do to the balance between the two houses.
It is also reintroduces through the back door the electoral reform that Mr Clegg lost through the front door of the AV referendum. This isn't shocking in itself: after all, the motives behind much constitutional reform, include many of the franchise widenings of the 19th century, were unrelievedly squalid. But that isn't a reason to vote for the bill. Indeed, solid reasons are rather hard to come by. These proposals were neither in the Conservative manifesto nor endorsed by the Coalition Agreement – and even if they were, Tory backbenchers are not bound by the latter in the way than Ministers are. It will be said that if the bill doesn't go through the Liberal Democrats will vote against the boundary review proposals when they come before the Commons, claiming that these were linked to Lords reform (which they weren't) rather than an AV referendum (which they are).
Since it's a bad bill, Tory MPs should vote against the programme motion (if it's moved)…
Some Tory MPs couldn't care less about the review. This is a mistake. The party is most unlikely to win another election, in which it must increase its vote despite five years in Government, on boundaries which require it to have roughly an eight per cent lead over Labour. Others will say that the Liberal Democrats won't carry out their veiled threat, since it would probably require them to quit the Government, move to confidence and supply, and risk a general election in which they would lose many seats. Again, this may be a mistake. It would be foolish to gamble on the Liberal Democrat turkeys not voting for Christmas and Boxing Day. Nor is their attachment to the bill in way way objectionable in itself. Belief in a reformed second chamber runs in the party's bloodstream (except among Liberal Democrat peers). And let's face it: without the Lords Bill becoming a Lords Act, what legacy figleaf will be left for Mr Clegg to cover himself with?
These are tactical calculations. It is easy to drown in them, given the uncertainty of what may happen in the future. So it's surely more simple – and better – to view the bill on its merits alone – and these, as we have seen, are wanting. Tory MPs have a choice. They can either vote for the programme motion which will allow a fundamentally flawed bill to pass – and one that will further vandalise our constitutional architecture – or they can vote against it, and not be bought off by pleas to vote against Second Reading (which will pass, since Labour will back the bill in principle) or in due course against Third Reading (in which Labour will probably act in the same way). So they should vote against the programme, if it is moved.
…Secure in the knowledge that by killing of the bill now they're doing David Cameron a favour
Many loyalist Conservative MPs will detest the bill but also want not to disappoint David Cameron (while itching to revenge themselves on the Liberal Democrats after their behaviour over Jeremy Hunt). But they should take stock this morning and ponder yesterday's debate. Over four times as many Conservative MPs spoke against the measure as for it. The letter signed by 70 of their colleagues opposing the bill puts the programme motion in peril, and the bill evidently doesn't have the confidence of the Tory party. Some rebels claimed yesterday that they hadn't been contacted by the Whips at all. One source told ConservativeHome yesterday that the Whips are essentially now conducting a number-gathering exercise only. This sits neatly with suggestions that they have never been fully behind the bill themselves.
Nor has the man to whom they report. Mr Cameron told cross-benchers during the last Parliament that he saw Lords reform as a priority for a Tory third term. This seems to me to sum up his view very neatly. The party leadership backed Lords reform during the last Parliament partly as a means of outflanking Labour. This was in keeping with what the two big parties tend to do over Lords reform: they tend to be pro in opposition and anti in Government (Tony Blair's position). The Prime Minister surely thinks that the whole darned business is a dratted nuisance – hence his blowing hot and cold about a referendum on reform. He must recognise from yesterday's events that the game is up. It's now clear that the bill is a menace to party unity. The loyalists would be doing Mr Cameron a favour by putting the bill out of its agony now, rather than letting it die a lingering death during the weeks to come.