By Matthew Barrett
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The Parliamentary Under Secretary for Constitutional and Political Reform (ie Nick Clegg's Conservative deputy), Mark Harper, appeared on Sky News earlier to give the Government's side of the Lords reform argument. Mr Harper said:
"It’s been Conservative policy to have a mainly elected House of Lords since 1999. I stood on the last three elections on that manifesto and the Coalition Agreement does no more than ask both the Coalition parties to deliver what was in both of our manifestos and indeed what was in Labour’s manifesto as well and I think it’s a very good Conservative measure about strengthening Parliament and having a check on the power of the executive and I think all Conservatives ought to be able to support it."
The Conservative manifesto actually says "We will work to build a consensus for a mainly-elected second chamber to replace the current House of Lords", which does not entail proceeding with any legislation, and the fact that 80-100 Tory MPs are likely to rebel indicates quite clearly that a consensus has not been reached. Mr Harper continued:
"This is a proposition on which most members of the public – 70% of the public – will say that it’s perfectly sensible that you elect most of the lawmakers in the House of Lords, they don’t think there’s anything exceptional about it. I think we should have a proper debate in Parliament, a proportional amount of time, I don’t think we should over-focus on it but we should get on and enact this very sensible reform which the public support."
Mr Harper argued that Lords reform was not distracting from the main mission of handling the economic crisis, and said the economy remained the Coalition's priority:
"The Government’s number one priority remains dealing with the deficit, dealing with the economic challenges facing the country. This is one important factor but we shouldn’t get it out of proportion. The Government came together to deal with an economic crisis, that crisis still remains, we see that when we look at the eurozone, both Coalition parties remain focused on dealing with that very important problem"
Finally, Mr Harper said the Lords reform proposals were "very Conservative proposals":
"These are very Conservative proposals in our manifesto, something that Conservative colleagues should be able to support but also I think colleagues want to get the balance right. They want us to spend a proper amount of time debating this issue, and I think we’ve allowed a proper amount of time for that in our programme motion, but they also don’t want it to be the only thing we talk about when there are other important issues. I think they want us to get the balance right, that’s what we’ve done, I think, in our programme motion. I think in the end that’s where most Conservative colleagues will come down on Tuesday."
The majority of Conservatives may well vote for the Coalition's Lords proposals on Tuesday, but many are not convinced that electing Lords (or "senators") to 15-year one-off terms is any more accountable than the status quo, and many are also concerned by the fact that using a proportional representation party list system will mean that party favourites are put at the top of the list – a worse system than at present – and hardly likely to "strengthen Parliament" or be an effective "check on the power of the executive". Those backbenchers minded to rebel are unlikely to have been persuaded by Mr Harper's arguments.