Oh dear, what an unfortunate juxtaposition of stories. At the start of this week, we heard about Lord Sewel’s extraparliamentary activities. At the end of it, we read that David Cameron is planning to elevate numerous Tory donors to the Lords, in spite of resistance from civil servants in the Cabinet Office. Surely none of these upstanding Conservatives will follow in Sewel’s white lines, but that doesn’t undo the hard facts of the matter. The second chamber’s reputation is suffering at the moment. Another batch of donors won’t help.
It also goes against what Cameron has said on the subject before now. Remember that promise in the 2010 manifesto to “build a consensus for a mainly-elected second chamber to replace the current House of Lords”? Yes, it was diluted in this year’s manifesto – “this is not a priority in the next Parliament” – but we’re still meant to believe that the Conservative leadership wants some form of elected (or partially elected) chamber. This isn’t that.
So, why is Cameron doing it? Easy – to shift the balance of Parliament in his party’s favour. We currently have a situation in which the Conservatives have a majority in the Commons, but nothing like one in the Lords. Labour’s 213 peers and the Lib Dems’ 101 could, in theory, unite to overpower the blue 224. Paul Goodman has explained the threat here. The Prime Minister will want to make sure it doesn’t materialise.
There’s also the little detail of what happened with Lords reform in the last Parliament. Cameron did, of course, try to fulfil his manifesto promise with a Bill for a mainly-elected second chamber. But Jesse Norman and 90 other Conservative MPs voted against the policy. That’s why it’s no longer, as the latest manifesto puts it, a priority.
But the Prime Minister should keep on trying – perhaps not specifically for an elected chamber, but for Lords reform in general. The current setup neither looks good nor operates as well as it might, and there’s every chance that it will deteriorate further in the next few years. It was Cameron himself who said, earlier this week, that “It is important the House of Lords in some way reflects the situation in the House of Commons.” This may warrant a greater share of Conservatives, but more Lib Dems on top of the 100 already there? And what about the SNP, who don’t accept unelected peerages, as well as UKIP and the Greens? Without reform of some sort, the Lords will never be balanced.
Which returns us to Jesse Norman and those other Tory rebels. Will they countenance reform? Well, yes, depending on what the reform is. It’s the nature of political reporting to privilege discontent above consensus, which is why the areas of consensus were largely ignored in 2012. Norman himself wrote about them in an article for the Times (£) that year:
“A wide consensus exists now across Parliament as to the kinds of measures that a genuine reform Bill might include, such as a reduction in the size of the House; the ending of elections for hereditary peers; a retirement process; a more independent process of appointment; and removal of peers who have committed serious criminal offences. A more radical approach would also separate the award of a peerage from membership of the Upper House.
Many of these measures are long overdue. They could be implemented today and would likely pass Lords and Commons alike on a free vote.”
It’s as we observed in the ConservativeHome manifesto: an elected second chamber may be a reform too far for many people, but that doesn’t mean that reform has to stop altogether. There’s plenty that Cameron can get on with, other than just painting the House blue.