Last night, George Osborne told the BBC that the Government’s dual defeat on the Chancellor’s tax credit proposals at the hands of the Lords “raises constitutional issues that need to be dealt with”.
To an extent, it’s a useful device for moving the story on from headlines like “Chancellor defeated over tax credits” and onto a debate about the powers of the upper chamber. But it’s also clear that he is severely brassed off with the assembled peers. Having repeatedly stated that he and the Prime Minister intend to act, he presumably now needs to make some sort of proposal as to what that action might be.
So what are his options?
- Creating an elected House of Lords. Asked directly about the question of abolishing the upper chamber by an SNP MP today, Osborne expressed his support for an elected House of Lords. While this was dismissed in some quarters as a joke, it’s worth remembering that the Chancellor has in fact voted for a fully elected House in the past. However, as he went on to note in the Commons, the proposal lacks strong support among MPs – particularly among Conservatives. Add the slim majority and the fact that the Government has other things to be getting on with and there is no way they will pursue such a wide-ranging reform.
- Packing the House. Both of last night’s votes were pretty close, despite Conservative Peers being in a distinct minority. The first motion was carried by a majority of 30, and the second motion was carried by only 17, suggesting that an injection of say 60 additional Conservatives might be enough to drastically reduce the threat of continual defeats. However, this would be a frankly shoddy answer – if we face a constitutional problem, then simply scraping the barrel to pack the chamber wouldn’t just look cheap, it would be cheap. Conservatives are supposed to defend the constitution, not game it for party gain – we aren’t the Labour Party. Any attempt to do so would likely generate more bad headlines, and more Tory discontent, than the defeats it sought to head off. Plus, the House of Lords is bloated already.
- Embedding the conventions in law. As Henry Hill argued yesterday, the problem of Labour and Lib Dem peers refusing to honour the conventions by which Parliament operates is not going to go away any time soon. If honour isn’t enough to preserve those conventions, then perhaps they could be embedded in legislation. That would be a more satisfactory solution than simply gaming the size of the chamber, and because it would be enforcing the existing system rather than introducing a new one it could secure the support of those opposed to any more drastic changes. The problem remains that it could run up against opposition from the Lords themselves – though the Parliament Act could be applied if needs be.
- Demanding better behaviour on pain of more drastic action. Downing Street could of course opt for a less concrete but politically easier course of action than any of the above options. They could declare that they want the Lords to rein themselves in – by obeying the conventions, rejecting petty delaying tactics and reducing their own numbers, for example – and give them until 2020 to do it. That would have the advantages of a) avoiding the need to use parliamentary time and political firepower on new legislation, b) seeming more reasonable than a vengeful reform, c) setting peer against peer on the question of how they behave and d) delaying the whole thing until the next parliament. This was the tactic Asquith used to get the original Parliament Act onto the statute books - if the Lords refused to accept it, he threatened to do something they feared much more, namely creating hundreds of new Liberal peers. The prospect of being overwhelmed, undermined or abolished might be enough to bring their successors in line, too.